Building an airport

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  Trip Ctd.
Summer 07
Winter 07


Last week I had quite a surprise. While walking slowly over the ice, my feet sinking soundlessly into the fluffy snow, I saw movement in the sky. Looking round, and not entirely believing it, I saw a bird. More, in fact, I think I saw at least 21. My species count since March is now equal to three.

I think they were cape petrels, about the size of a seagull, pure white with black edges at the front of their wings. They quietly flew past me, darted about the Piggott, then wheeled about the base for a few minutes before heading West into the setting sun and burning mist. I saw them first high in the air, shadows against the pale blue sky, but didn't really believe in them for a minute or two. Every now and then for the last couple of months I've seen a puff of smoke, or a piece of ice falling from a building, or just imagined movement in the corner of my eye, when of course there was nothing there -- but this time there was. As they flew away their number doubled. Flying low, dark against the snow and paired with their flitting shadows as they raced away from our lonely desolation.

Later, though tired from my week on nightwatch, I joined the birds in their dance on the wind. My small kite full of air, pulling strongly through its thin lines. My skis scraping out two thin gorges in the fresh, soft, snow throwing the powder into the air to drift gently back to the surface as I shot away into the distance. Dodging the flags and barrels that ring my remote universe, passing beyond the perimeter into the prohibited. The same ice, the same wind, stretching ahead forever to the sharp horizon. I execute a turn, cutting the kite behind me while scraping to a stop, then with a sharp tug I stall one side and let it dive down and rise up, each sweeping pass pulling me faster as I tack back to the base.

The return of the sun, and the slow return of its warmth, are gently changing the look of the buildings. No longer covered with a layer of harsh ice crystals, the brown and orange panels have now melted clear, and much of the metalwork, railings and stairs, is a dull grey again. A little colour has been injected. Some snow still remains. Over the winter large piles grew on top of the steel legs that support our buildings above the snow. As these have warmed the snow has slumped into a sort of fairy tale icing, drooping away from their supports in fantastic curves. I have a patch that is advancing down my window, ready to fall at any moment but forever clinging on. It's lowest part has become translucent and glows with the colour of the sky behind it, adding a slight cast of light blue.

Translucent snow
Translucent snow

It has finally become a lot warmer. Temperatures now hover around the minus twenty mark which is warm enough to have my chin out in the open. I spent all of friday out of doors building our airport to be ready for the first plane's expected arrival in around two weeks. It's not a major feat of civil engineering, but it is important to lay out the strip in the right place along the right bearing. As the iceshelf moves out to sea, and twists slightly as it moves, the runway ends up in a different place each year. I had lots of fun with a set of three compasses and a theodolite to work out where we should go, and directed people in the distance as they drove for a kilometer dropping barrels every thirty meters. The tricky part was taking the initial bearing and lining the theodolite (essentially a telescope on a complicated swivel) up with a marker out on the horizon. The cover of low clouds removed all difference between snow and the sky, so searching about in the distance for the one small speck of black took quite a while. At the end of the day I'd even become a little sunburnt, a reminder that we've measured the lowest levels of atmospheric Ozone ever, that the sun cuts through clouds, and that I should remember to put on suncream.

Zero barrels
Zero barrels

Many barrels
Many barrels

Jumping back to last weekend we celebrated the fiftieth aniversery of the founding of a scientific research base at Halley. Back in the UK a large dinner was laid on for previous residents of the Brunt ice shelf, and we joined them using a video link. It was great to chat with a couple of the people who were here right at the start, although we did chastise them a little for picking a site without any mountains. We had a good meal of our own and toasted another fifty years of Halley. As the speeches in the UK ended, the sun put on a magnificient show outside. A puffy layer of stratocumulus ended just ahead of the horizon and was just about to break up. The sun shone upwards from afar and picked out the folds of cloud in red or salmon pink, going gold in the distance.

Sunset for z50
Sunset for z50

Salmon pink and grey clouds
Salmon pink and grey clouds

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