|Penguins, Shafts and Snow|
Although our instruments seemed to be producing data over the winter there are a couple that we haven't actually seen for quite a while. Julius and I took advantage of a very nice day to visit the shaft that holds the magnetometer and riometer. The riometer consists of four antenna pointing North, South, East and West and listens for faint radio signals from space. During solar disturbances it goes a bit bonkers but mostly it sits quietly and does very little. We discovered that one of the storms we'd suffered had managed to rip a couple of the receiving rods apart but that otherwise it seemed to be ok.
The shaft itself starts on the surface in a monster of a wind scoop then descends down into the ice. Every four meters or so a platform lies across the shaft and we have to switch ladders. This, in theory, means that if we slip off a rung we only fall far enough to feel a little silly. Anyhow, down we go. At the bottom there's a little heated office with some electronics and drivers to send signals back to the Piggott. Next door is the room housing the magnetometers. These sit on pillars driven into the ice below and measure variations in the Earth's magnetic field at Halley. During strong aurora the field can vary by over a thousand nano-Tesla, which is more than it sounds. I like the shaft, ice crystals grow on the walls near the top and glint in the daylight filtering in from the open hatch. The wood feels warm and the lowest level seems like some sort of lost Egyptian tomb.
A spell of incredibly cold weather kept us from the emperor penguins for a few weeks but eventually the place warmed up and I headed off to the coast again for another quick visit. I was joined by Frances, Bob, Brian and Simon. We arrived as a massive solar halo formed, complete with extra fiddly bits around the edges, it disappeared as we headed down the cliff and started our walk over to the colony.
The warmish weather let the penguins spread themselves out and had encouraged them to move another five minutes away from our access point. On the way we passed over the location of their last huddle, the brown stain now nearly covered by fresh snow. Here and there we passed a dead chick or two, lifeless statues on the snow, frozen by the harsh elements.
At the colony itself it was clear that all the chicks had hatched. We didn't see a single egg, and everywhere we looked little heads were peeking out from under adults. Here and there couples danced, their necks stretching to the sky, their bellies pressed tightly together, a chick on the feet of one waiting to waddle to the warm comfort of the other. Some adults without young of their own prowled about looking lonely, waiting out another year before they can breed again. We witnessed a mob of singletons surrounding a parent, pressing in trying to prise the infant from its safe haven. The father fought back, shielding the youth by bending forwards, driving his beak into the ground and forming a strong arch above the hard ice. The gang's efforts are repulsed, the parent's legacy preserved.
As we walked back to our abseil point a group detached itself from the mass to follow us back and bask in the sun as we strugled up and away from the ice.
Today it's a bit windy and pretty in a ferocious sort of way.
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