An Average Day

While writing my weekly letter to my Granny yesterday, I found myself stumped

for words. Stumped for material more like. What to say? Nothing has changed

since last week, there is no news to report. It’s still cold, it’s still dark,

I still go to the lab to work and I still live with the same 17 people who I

have lived with for the last four months. We have had no visitors, no mail,

no dramatic new events unfolding. Don’t get me wrong – we’re happy here,

laugh a lot, party, play games, watch videos, read books, have a million bizarre

conversations and a few serious ones too. But there’s not much to report.

I feel like I’ve already told you anything worth telling but that you somehow

expect more. You want drama and excitement, courageous battles with the weather,

brilliant diversions from near-miss incidents, comrades going mad with winter

depression and skin shrivelling up through lack of fresh fruit. But it’s not

like that. When you’re here, it just makes sense. But then maybe that means

I’m taking it all for granted. So this morning I thought I’d pay a bit more

attention to my daily routine and see what might be there out of the ordinary.

The sunshine lamp flooded my room with squintingly bright light around 7am

this morning thanks to an old fridge defrost-timer that the wintering electrician

rewired for me. Unimpressed, I crawled back under my duvet and hid my head.

At about 7:45, my alarm clock went off, jolting me back out of dreamland for

just long enough to hit the red button on the top. I was parched. At 8:45, I

finally pulled myself out of bed, downed the glass of water I had left there

the night before, climbed off the top bunk and into my issued clothing of thick

thermal socks, green moleskin trousers and a thermal top. Yum. O god, you’re

thinking, is this the kind of detail she’s going to go through the entire

day in? No. Well, maybe, we’ll see.

The point is, it’s really hard to get out of bed in the morning (and the driest

place on Earth). I’ve never found it easy, I know (past friends and housemates

are already laughing that I bothered mentioning it), but it’s really, really

hard. One guy here even asked if gravity was stronger at the poles due to some

effect of the rotation of the Earth! There is definitely a winter lethargy about

the place. It’s not that we don’t get stuff done. We just get it done at our

own pace, in our own time. There are plenty of theories about why this is; the

most widely accepted is that daylight acts as a reset switch in your bodyclock,

helping us to remain in approximate 24 hour synchronicity with each other. It’s

well documented that antarctic winterers can rapidly lose synchronicity from

each other ultimately resulting, in extreme situations, in social breakdown.

Which is precisely why I insist on dragging myself out to work for 9am and try

to finish before dinner – something I have never done at home when I have

had the freedom to work whatever hours I choose. Ironically, I have never lived

such a disciplined life as here, where the only social constructs are those

respected by the wintering contingent.

I digress. I get up, have breakfast, chat over a cup of tea, peg out, tog

up and go out to the lab. Need that expanded too?

Get up but don’t have a shower as water is limited and I like to have

a shower after I’ve hauled myself indoors, sweaty and tired, for the last time

of the day.

Breakfast is toast or cereal. Bread varies according to the person

on night-shift, apples and oranges are still around but the quality is a lottery,

and I often make yoghurt so that might go in a bowl as well.

Tea is obvious, chat usually is related to articles in the

newspaper that arrives in the middle of the night and has a scarily biased perspective

on everything. I am now an expert on the comings and goings on reality TV, Big

Brother, David Beckham’s sex life and where the Royal Princes will be holidaying


Peg out – well, there’s a peg out board where you put your name

to the place you’re going to and write it in a book along with the time you

expect to be back. The daily gash person keeps an eye on the book throughout

the day and tries to find you if you’re out beyond your self-provided curfew.

It’s a little Big Brother-ish but could save your life.

Togging up, now I could write a whole book on antarctic clothing but

in short here’s what I add to my clothing in the boot room: ‘mucklucks’ on my

feet (big moon-boots, almost knee high, hard toe-capped), a thin fleece top,

all-in-one orange padded overalls, a balaclava, a neck-warmer, a dead-rabbit

mad bomber hat, a thick ‘windy’ cotton smock which blocks out the wind like

no other material I have ever experienced, goggles, thin glove liners and large

mitts. Plus an emergency back-pack with more clothing if I’m going to the CASLab

and a radio worn like vest under the outer layer to keep batteries warm. Ok,

so I’m togged up and ready to leave the building. It’s probably 09:30.

As I was leaving, I realised that I needed to go via the Simpson platform to

pick up some solutions I had mixed on Friday and some more deionised water for

various machines at the lab. Last summer a wet chemistry facility was built

on the Simpson platform since three of our instruments use liquid methods but,

for space, safety and practicality reasons, there is nowhere to prepare liquids

at the CASLab. The CASLab is about 1.3km from the Laws platform (where we live)

but if you go via the Simpson, the journey is a bit longer. In any bad weather

or reduced visibility conditions, we have to walk via the Simpson anyway as

this is the way the handlines are routed.

Leaving the Laws I remember that I bust the binding on my skis last week so

will have to walk. Since I’ll be taking lots of liquids with me, I take the

orange pulk sledge and harness, dump the emergency bag inside it and pull the

lot to the Simpleton. It’s not a long stop there – I pick up 5L of dilute

sulphuric acid in a glass bottle, 3L of sulphanilamide solution, a few pots

of pre-weighed powder, 3L of de-ionised water, 50ml of acetone and some crunchy

granola bars. I’m sure I’ve forgotten something but it’ll have to wait. It’s

cold outside so before leaving I make sure there are no bits of skin peeking

through my various headgear. I got a reasonable sized patch of frost-nip last

week on my left cheek and eye, now healing nicely, and I don’t want to re-expose

it. I load everything into the sledge and start the slog to the lab.

But what’s 24-hour darkness like?, you’re asking. Well, at this time of day,

it’s dark still, always dark. Today was quite cloudy so there wasn’t even the

joy of stars to carry me along the commute. The moon is waning but still shedding

quite a lot of light and the lights from the lab are bright enough that I can

follow them without needing a head torch. We had another brief storm last week

that dumped a lot of soft snow unevenly in lumps and bumps across the ice so

the walk is quite hard going. I fall over a couple of times and struggle when

the sledge catches on sastrugi (the hard bumpy bits on the snow). I’m pulling

less than 15kgs on the sledge but it feels like a lot more when we’re going

in opposite directions.

It seems to take an age to get to the lab, in reality it was probably about

20 or 25 minutes but I’m sweating loads when I do finally get there and relieved

to get indoors. There are a bunch of outdoor checks I usually do upon arrival

but today I’m too tired, and will cool off rapidly, so decide to do them when

there’s a bit more light outside. I get to the lab at 10:30.

Thankfully, everything seems fine once I get unwrapped and my breath back.

First I check the telescope room but it’s too cloudy to see any return signal

from the mirror bouncing light back at us from 4km away. On a clear day, this

is one of the most satisfying experiments as the return beam looks like a star

on the horizon and is easy to optimise and focus onto the optical fibre. We’re

looking for absorbance of light by a range of atmospheric species: mainly halogen

oxides and the nitrate radical. We don’t expect to see much chemical activity

during the winter months but it’s important to measure this so we know how it

compares to the increased signals when the sun returns. Year-round studies of

this nature in Antarctica are still pretty special.

The next instrument I check measures formaldehyde in the air. It seems to be

ticking away nicely but one of the reservoirs is running low: hence the sulphuric

acid I brought with me. That should last another week or two now although the

other liquid it uses is also running out and I’ll have to make a new batch this

week, maybe tomorrow afternoon. The HONO instrument is next – I refill

the Helium bag and feed the empty reservoir next to it with 3L of deionised

water. Sometimes it feels a bit like watering plants!

Next to this instrument is a gas chromatograph (GC) that measures Peroxy Acetyl

Nitrate, or PAN, and I notice that its water reservoir, used for circulating

coolant, is also low. This instrument stands in a rack. On the bench next to

it is a GC that monitors non-methane hydrocarbons (NMHCs) that is working well

at the moment. It needs a blank run though so I set up a Nitrogen cylinder and

change the programme accordingly.

The last of my instruments to come on-line is around the corner next to the

formaldehyde monitor; this measures peroxides and will hopefully be running

soon. While checking these five machines, I have barely had to move my feet

at all as they are crammed together around one human-sized patch of floor. Like

the conductor of an orchestra!

I make a note of the various solutions I need to prepare next. Ok, so everything’s

moderately happy, fed and watered. I spend the rest of the morning paying them

a bit more attention – running calibrations and blanks, troubleshooting

things I don’t understand, feeling a bit like a teacher in a room full of restless

children, all wanting a bit more attention than I have the time to provide.

It was a nice morning all-in-all: not too hectic and I made some good progress.

The lab is cramped and noisy though, so I was hoping to make it back in time

for lunch at 1pm. Around midday I venture outside for the outdoor work, hoping

it might have warmed up a bit. I go outside onto the platform and collect a

small plastic jar for sampling snow. It’s a dark day today so I need a torch

to find the pole where we sample from, about 100m from the lab. Once back on

the platform, I check the pressure in various gas cylinders, look at the air

inlets on the roof to check they’re not blocked, and pick up some freezer blocks

to keep solutions indoors cool.

By the time I get back inside, less than 10 minutes, the end of my nose and

tips of my fingers have gone white and are screamingly cold. The pain doesn’t

get better as I warm them up with the palm of my hand. Damn – I must have

not covered up properly, I’ve been nipped again. It’s time to leave, I want

to leave, I’m hungry and not looking forward to the journey back. I get dressed

again, this time with another balaclava and even bigger mitts from the emergency

bag, grab the bag, empty bottles and a 20L jerrican full of waste chemicals

that needs disposing back on base (to be eventally shipped back to the UK).

The air is dark, I can’t see any definition in the snow, the sledge is heavy

and difficult to pull on this lumpy surface. I’m being obstinate: I should really

dump the sledge and pick it up tomorrow but some days you just don’t want to

let the weather beat you. So I keep going. Within a few minutes my goggles are

steamed up and frozen – I put them on in a different order this time that

obviously doesn’t work. I can’t see squat. Without them I can see lights of

the Laws but risk getting more frostnip.

I realise that I’m not in a good mood and that it’s unfortunate that today

of all days is the day I decided to document in writing. Some days, when it’s

clear, the walk home is a joy. I chat to the stars, dance with the snow, sing

to myself. But today, it’s a slog. It’s cold, it’s dark, it’s 1pm for crying

out loud, I can’t see a thing and am having to direct myself through a tiny

slot between my furry hat, balaclava and windy hood. I tried wearing the goggles

and hanging onto the handline but that was even more ludicrous. I know I’ll

be ok, I have no doubt about my safety or ability to get home, I just wish that

I could be there now.

Forty minutes and a couple of stumbles later, I crawl indoors and collapse

for a couple of minutes. Melodramatic drama queen! The gash dude did call me

on the radio just after my last stumble which was kind of comforting –

knowing that if I hadn’t replied they would have come out looking for me. Nice

to know that the system works, anyway.

A bowl of tomato soup and a bacon roll later, I’m laughing about it. I’ve checked

the weather data and it’s not as bad as it felt: only -31C with 15 knot winds.

It felt a lot colder, I guess the subjective was -42C though. Still, at this

time of year it usually has to reach -40C or windspeeds above 30 knots to get

much of an oo and an aah around the table. What a wuss!

I’ve warmed up but my nose is sore, my cheek raw and I don’t fancy returning

to the lab. All is fine there and I have plenty I can be getting on with on

the Simpson platform for the afternoon. But no, damn, I realise I might have

left the gas store open when my fingers got frostnipped with the intention of

closing it later. Damn. It would probably be ok for the night but if the wind

picks up, not good – the bottles would get cold and the store fill with

snow. It’s my colleague’s day off today (we alternate weekends and Mondays)

but bless him, he offers to go out and check for me in the afternoon. I am so

grateful! None of my face fancies more of that journey again today.

Truth be told, I’m a bit bored of this blow – it’s not big enough to

be exciting but is too big for any good outside activity. Like how you get bored

of grey days and dull rain in Britain. Last week was much nicer: I was on melt-tank

duty and often sat on the snow mound after the tank was full, looking at the

night sky in the morning or enjoying the red glow if it was an afternoon dig.

I even went for a walk on Saturday, the weather was so calm.

I spend the afternoon replying to work-related emails, fixing a pipette and

analytical balance in the wet chem lab, and preparing some more chemicals. That

winter lethargy seems to have crept back in again. Dinner’s at 6pm, after that

our usual banter and then I pick up a new book. My last books were ‘Love in

The Time of Cholera’ followed by ‘Touching the Void’ (Joe Simpson) and am now

starting ‘Oranges are Not the Only Fruit’.

At 8pm we have our Monday night double bill of ’24’ and then, after my heart-rate

calmed down, I plugged in my laptop and started writing this. It was a fairly

typical day I guess, if a bit colder than usual. Somedays the weather is better

but the lab is much worse. I’d rather have the former by far. I thought it was

nothing to report but I guess it only feels normal if you do it every day.

16 thoughts on “An Average Day

  1. At what temperature does diluted sulphuric acid freeze? Where does your electricity come from? Does the lack of centrifugal force from the earth’s rotation make a difference to one’s weight? And the fact that the earth is not round but an ovaloid, wider at the equator, does that make a difference? How do crunchy granola bars fit into your experiments? Do sastrugi make for good cocktail ornaments? Why does the water for the HONO instrument need to be deionized? What would happen if you filled HONO with sastrugi? How much snow are you allowed to sample before you get copyright issues? Do you realize that talking to the stars is discouraged at lower latitudes?

    I have more questions but that is all for now.

  2. Sufficiently dilute sulphuric acid, which this is, freezes at zero celsius but 5L of the stuff takes longer than 20 minutes to freeze, even at -30C, especially when being continually sloshed about. The base being heavily populated by the human subggroups: (1) men and (2) scientists, means that the innocent question posed to defend morning lethargy has resulted in vigorous tabletime debate. I think the final decision was that the gravitiational pull here could be indeed be stronger since we’re closer to the centre of the earth. The centrifugal effect that would make us feel the effect less, however, still has a few supporters at the time of writing. (Just for the record, although the spirals of science often dominate dinner-time talk, the other significant subgroup here, ‘techies’, represented by technical, mechanical and engineering folk, regularly returns conversation at the bar to Matters Engine. Rarely do we get much tatter about make-up, boys and handbags.) Crunchy granola bars are possibly the most important fuel in the lab and central to getting any of the machines ever working. Them and tea. Unfortunately, you can’t carry sastrugi as far as a cocktail glass. I’m not even sure if it remains sastrugi if removed from the snow-surface. Infact, I don’t think sastrugi comes in singular or plural, it just is. Sastrugi covers the entire snow surface, it’s beautiful and casts wonderful shadows. Sometimes you get arches in the snow. Sometimes it trips you up. It is certainly not to be belittled, owned or considered ornamental. In no way is it ornamental. Rather, I am probably ornamental to sastrugi. All water that we use at the lab is filtered and purified. Snowmelt water is actually incredibly pure but still contains ions in it. As a matter of interest, these ions probably wouldn’t cause too much of a problem in either the formaldehyde or HONO instruments. Unless you want to measure the concentration of these things in snowmelt that is. Which we do. Not much point in using your sample as a blank as well. Copyright in Antarctica? You think we have Laws down here?!! I don’t understand,- why would anyone ever discourage talking to stars? How else do you send your messages across the hemispheres?

  3. Ah, but Rhian, being at the poles of an squashed sphere (ovaloid is probably the wrong term) has to reduce gravitational pull, not increase it, precisely because you are nearer to the center of the earth. At the center of the earth, you weigh nothing, obvs.

  4. Just to throw my lot in – the normal term used for the earth’s shape is an oblate spheroid, and as an approximation you weigh 0.5% more at the poles than at the equator (not taking into account the large supply of chocolate at Halley). This is due to part of the gravitational force acting to oppose the centrifugal force at the equator, and that you are closer to the centre of the earth at the poles (gravitational attraction goes as 1/r2). Gravity reduces as you near the centre of the earth only if you drill a hole to the centre and then enter it – a possible escape route if things get too much…

    Thanks for the continuing posts and glad you are enjoying the winter!

  5. Whenever I am particularly pressed by the obtuse demands of daily tasks here in Los Lala-land of Make-Believe, one of your posts seems to come along and remind me that someone out there is having a far more mind-blowingly beautiful ‘average’ day. And in a far more beautifully ‘average’ place. Keeps things in perspective. Keep on keepin’ on.

  6. I agree completely that the earth’s rotation makes you weight less at the equator than at the poles, all else being equal, but I am not ready to concede that being at the poles of an oblate spheroid increases your weight because you are closer to the center of the earth.

    In my defense, consider an extremely oblate spheroid. In fact, it’s a pancake. If you are at the pole of that, almost all the gravitational attraction is cancelled. Clearly, you’d weigh less on the surface of a pancake at the center.

  7. Stefan, that was so subtle, I almost missed it, but did you just do a 180-degree U-turn here?

    June 9: “being at the poles of an squashed sphere has to reduce gravitational pull, not increase it”.

    June 10: “you weight less at the equator than at the poles”.

    Seems to me that on June 9 you weigh less at the poles, and on June 10 you weigh less at the equator. Or did I miss something?

  8. Well, you missed something. There are two unrelated effects in play. The earth’s rotation will decrease your weight at the equator, hence making you heavier, relatively, at the poles. And the fact that the poles are closer to the center of the earth makes for less gravitational pull — or at least that is my hypothesis — making you lighter, relatively at the poles. Which effect outweighs which I don’t know.

  9. Damn, and there’s me thinking that you’d actually admitted you were wrong. As Moray points out, Newton’s Law of Gravitation says that gravity at any given point is inversely proportional to the square of the distance between that point and the center of gravity of the object in question (in this case, the earth). At the poles, you’re about as close as it’s physically possible to get to the earth’s center of gravity. Therefore, you weigh more there.

    At the center of the earth, you weigh nothing only because there’s equal amounts of earth all around you in all directions. At the pole, all of the planet is still underneath your feet.

  10. Rhian,

    This was interesting, even if a lot of the technical detail went well above my head. I’m very very layman. But I do have a question. What’s the big picture here? What’s all this tooing and froing about? Could you please describe what the winter station and indeed science based in Antarctica generally trying to accomplish? Apologies if I missed the Big Picture Memo.


    Jame in hot and humid Hong Kong – about as far from Antarctica as one can get on land, climatically speaking.

  11. Top ten things I hate about Stockholm, VII

    The Sixth in an occasional series.Ten: Predatory seatingNine: Culinary relativismEight: Pre√´mptive planningSeven: Premature masticationSix: Irrational discalceationFive: Radiotjnst i Kiruna AB Four: Temporal engineeringIt’s…

  12. Stefan is right. Imagine a really thin, very large circumference pancake with the mass of the earth. The bits of the pancake around the edge a long way from you just won’t do much pulling (and that pulling they do do will nearly all be be sideways and will equal each other out). So its only the little bit of the pancake close to you that will be pulling downwards. All in all, you’d end up feeling pretty light.

    Think of it this way, the average distance between you and the average bit of earth in any particular direction will be a lot further than if you were dealing with a sphere (so less pull) and furthermore, there’ll be another bit of earth of exactly the same size in almost exactly the opposite direction (so nearly all of the less pull cancels out).

    The “gravitational attraction goes as 1/r2 to center of the earth” works for this kind of thing if you can pretend all of the mass is at a point –effectively, if you’re outside a perfect sphere which has evenly distributed mass.

    I’d guess the graph of how the weight you feel would decline as the earth gets more pancake-likewould be like a sine curve, so the practical difference in weight at Halley would be zip.

    Long boring comment after very interesting post. But it’s so rare that I get to agree with Stefan.

  13. Damn. Never agree with Stefan. Never, never. On further reflection, its got to be one of those things where you have to play with a sine and a squared term in some big equation, and thinking about it, it may be that the average bit of earth gets closer and still underneath you for a while before it gets further away and to your sides as you flatten it. Maybe. Or something. Hopefully no-one is reading comments on this entry now there’s another one from Halley!

  14. I admit it. I was wrong. The thing to remember about the flat pancake is that ir would be a lot denser than a sphere, as the same amount of matter has to fit into it. A person right next to it at the middle is in fact close to a lot of matter, much more so than the person at the “equator” of the pancake.

  15. Ah, good, now I feel I’m in my more accustomed space. Stefan, you noddy, the assumption is the panckae has the same volume as the sphere. The Earth isn’t slightly off spherical because someone came along and crushed it in a bit, but because of all the spinning and goopy insides.

  16. Weighty issue

    Well, further evidence, should you need it, that the General Theory of Relativity actually works. New satellite tracking data carefully has just confirmed frame dragging as a real effect. But the coolest thing is that they used a highly accurate…

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