It is, as the title suggests, blowing an absolute hoolie outside and I fear

I have been over-romanticising Antarctica in my latest scrawls. I have not seen

the sun for a week. I have been outside, for more than five minutes, three times

only. I have been lifted off my feet, fallen on my face, clung onto a handline

for fear of never seeing a building again and have turned all the instruments

in my lab off until the storm passes.

It is currently blowing 37 knots outside from the east. The average windspeed

dropped to 27 knots Saturday morning and went as high as 59 last week. Gusts

of 70 knots were not uncommon. To those of you unfamiliar with nautical miles,

think ordinary miles per hour. That’s a lot of air to go past your face. And

a lot of snow being carried in the air. The building rocks and sways as though

it were a ship, water gurgles in sinks and toilets, unidentified swinging things

swing against the legs throughout the night. In my windowless pitroom, I hear

the gale through the ventilation system and know there’s no point hurrying to

get out of bed.

This is a storm. This is the kind of storm you might have seen in films. It’s

all true. Handlines connect buildings to buildings, interspersed by poles roughly

10 metres apart. When you leave the building, you grab a handline. Within a

minute or two, turn around and you can see nothing of the place you just left

except perhaps, if you’re lucky, a foggy suggestion of light coming from the

normally piercingly bright search lights. Half way between buildings, look around

and there is nothing in all directions. It’s white but there’s no sun so it’s

not even white. It’s just opaque, in every direction. I wonder if this is at

all like being partially sighted. As you get closer to things, they come into

focus, but generally you survive according to your knowledge of the layout,

your memory of any route.

When people come inside, they are flushed and exhausted. Every speck of skin

must be covered to protect against the wind but it’s not that cold (only -10C

right now) so you’re sweating as well. The cold days are the clear ones. Last

Tuesday was a classic example. It was cold, it was beautiful, clear and bright.

I got minor frostnip and cold burns on my arms – and yes, I was suitably

dressed. Around 5pm, my colleague and I were trying to align a light beam emitted

from the lab, projected 4km across the ice-shelf to a mirror, reflected back,

focussed into a telescope and ultimately an optical fibre connected to a spectrometer

which gives us an image. The conditions were perfect and we saw a lovely spot

of light. Then it went. Completely. Within 15 minutes the clouds and snow had

arrived, wind picked up and pressure was plummetting. We packed our bags and

left the lab ASAP.

I wasn’t able to return until Saturday, and that was in a 28 knot blow, to

check on the state of the lab. It was fine but the walk out there was hard going.

Perfectly safe (accompanied) but a bit of a slog. Took a good half hour. The

return was quicker though as the wind was behind us!

I love this weather, it’s howling outside and shaking inside. People still go to work but you don’t go outside for fun. I’m not worried for anyone’s safety as the general base procedure is designed exactly for weather like this. We sign in and out, we wear radios, we check up on each other and take ropes anywhere where there isn’t a handline. We’re all fine, part of me is loving it. But you wouldn’t want to be down here with an idiot.

4 thoughts on “Hoolie

  1. So are going to start all your posts with “It was a dark and stormy night” for the next six months? Actually, I’m a little thrilled, as I suspect this means you will have more time to update us with your adventures, which, by the way, you continue to tell in riveting prose.

    But why are you beaming light across ice shelves into mirrors? Isn’t it easier just to beam the light directly into the spectrometer? But why couldn’t you just do that back in the UK? Do they use different lamps in Antarctica? What’s the current over there? Are the plugs British?

    Meanwhile, Felix keeps on posting about globalization and the New York Times. Apparently, neither are as great as somebody thought. We’re having interesting debates on MemeFirst, though. Iraq is going horribly pear-shaped, and there are plenty of people to blame for that, though none of them us.

    Funny thing about Sweden is that just as you plunge into the dark, here everything gets bathed in bright bright light. But it happens suddenly. June 21 is not that far off anymore, and after that things start edging in your favor again, as I’m sure you are aware.

    Keep writing…

  2. Good to hear from you Stefan and thanks for your flattery… but is that a very thinly disguised attempt to get me to talk about SCIENCE in my writing? How dare you even consider it?! Maybe, maybe, maybe.. if I pluck up the guts.. but don’t say I didn’t warn you.

  3. I have to concur with Stefan: all this for a point of light? hah, hah, hah –

    But seriously, thanks so much for sharing the adventure with us! What a gift.

    Anxiously awaiting the next action-packed installment!

  4. What some people will do for science!

    Glad to hear you are enjoying the adventures and

    the very fresh air.

    Looking forward to more reports.

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