All Change

I’m on a train in Austria. I like being in foreign lands but had forgotten

how strong this feeling of foreign-ness is. And this in a country where I speak

a smattering of the language. Not that I always need it – today a waitress spoke

English to me before I even opened my mouth. What is the first impression I

give off: English, American, or just Tourist? Is it the way I walk, dress, look

lost, or some mannerism inexplicable?

I’m in one of those archaic train booths, sealed, all six seats occupied albeit

one by a suitcase, with a connecting corridor running down the outside. Similar

carriages, without the corridor, were phased out in Britain a few years ago after a series of

uncomfortable scenarios developed. Some commuters miss them though: those who

used to meet in a given carriage and play cards all the way home to the London

green belt. Here, leaving Vienna, there seems to be a polite tradition of maximising

stuffiness by keeping the doors and windows closed. I can’t think why, maybe

noise related. Then again, maybe it’s the law, like not crossing the road on

a red man, ever. Half the doors led to smoking cabins and other half to groups of kids eating pizza. It took me a while to find this one, the one with occupants who have established the criteria I’m looking for. Like seek like.

Large amounts of bread, cheese, and ham, cream topped coffee and hot chocolate,

sachertorte, apfel-strudel, cream, ice-cream, more cheese and meat, beer, ostentatious

buildings (in Vienna), an arrogance and pride in Austrian-ness that I enjoy.

Unlike in Germany, I am generally allowed to struggle on with my communication

attempts despite the fact that we could probably get there quicker in English.

I appreciate that. And I even enjoy the terrible service. It amuses me.

When abroad, foreign-ness is acceptable, expected, perhaps even an important

part of the experience. It is a fact. (Aside: what’s a substitute word for abroad

if you don’t live on an island?) I still feel it, however, at home.

I’ve just bought a boat, a narrow boat, to live on. My first weekend aboard,

I needed to get various odds and sods. Locks, battery chargers, eco-cleaning

products, chain, tools, stuff for the kitchen, wood, kindling, and coal. Walking

into that first DIY shop I put on my best swagger, braced my shoulders, deepened

my voice, and spoke with as much confidence possible about things I had no idea.

They knew I was a foreigner. I returned an hour later with a non-functioning

example of the thing I wanted to buy and unabashed air of cluelessness. That

visit was more successful.

To get into my boat you currently have to climb over waist-high railings, jump

onto the roof, slide down the side and crawl under battoned-down covers before

grappling with the lock, usually in the dark. The first time, I nearly slipped

in. The second, I nearly dropped my keys in the drink. The third, my bag. I

have now developed a ritual of zipping and securing important objects to Self,

and leaving detachables on the roof, before attempting the manoeuvre. In a year,

I’ll be skipping along the ‘gunnels’ (written gunwhales but that’s stupid),

growing increasingly impatient with clumsy visitors. I will have also necessarily

developed stronger arms so I can clamber onto the top of my home without looking

like a ninny.

I’ve also got a new job. It starts in earnest in May but I’ve been to a few

meetings with my new hat on already. The first was in Brussels, the second,

London, and third, Vienna. For a week before the Brussels trip I was losing

sleep about what to wear rather than what to say. In the end, I took that most

drastic of steps and went shopping. I had fairly horrific expectations seeing

as I needed the full gambit, including heels to stop my suit trousers swimming

around my ankles. (Why I bought such a baggy outfit five years ago is anyone’s

guess but there’s no point in having a suit if you’re never going to wear it,

right?) Anyway, the experience was surprisingly satisfying. I shopped like a

man: list of items to get, seeked, got. Home for tea and medals. Wearing the

suit was my next trauma. I self-consciously survived the first day but on day

two just wore the jacket with jeans. And the heels. They were admittedly heels

belonging to boots, but I still felt a fraud. It took me a full day to pack for

Brussels but only 20 minutes for Vienna. The learning curve is steep but thankfully


I keep thinking back to Halley and how much I didn’t know at the start, how

much I did know at the end. Running the various machines, driving skidoos, making

milk to the right consistency, digging snow. These learning curves now of boat-owning

and power-dressing feel just as hard, if not harder, but I’m sure I’ll conquer

them in the end. Or sell the boat, quit the job. The power-dressing, I’m not

sorry to say, is already doomed. Folk will have to take me as I am.

Something else that came out of the year at Halley is scientific results.

These were less of a personal experience on a day-to-day blogging level but

something I’ve realised, with a year of counselling behind me and some wonderful

rose-tinted glasses, that I am very proud of. They are definitely a team, as

well as personal, achievement.

In the first summer, the lab was built. In the second summer, four of us turned

up in Antarctica to set up the campaign. Two returned to the UK leaving Stéphane

and myself to commission and run about 15 instruments during the autumn, winter

and spring, between them measuring over 30 different molecules in the air. We

were joined in the third summer by four more ‘beakers’, bringing with them three

more beasts of machines. They came to run an intensive summer campaign studying

short-lived oxidants before we packed everything up, closed the lab for the

year, and returned home to Britain.

Throughout the year, my day-to-day reality involved plumbing, fixing, monitoring,

building, checking nuts and bolts, realigning light beams, making new solutions,

calibrating instruments, and dragging away the waste chemicals. There was always

something broken, there were usually many things broken. I became increasingly

disillusioned with the work, the machines, and the lab. It was hot, noisy, depressing,

overwhelming, vibrating, stressful, and far away. Pushing open the heavy lab door

each day, I would have a sinking feeling: what’s going to have gone wrong today?

Will I get time to fix that machine I’ve been ignoring? Will I discover new

leaks, new faults? Will any gas cylinders need changing, more solutions need

topping up that I haven’t provided for? Is there any point to any of this? Surely,

in such mayhem and chaos we can’t really be producing cutting edge, highest

quality science? Why did they employ me? Why not someone qualified for the job?

I never stopped loving Halley, returning always to the sky, the people, and

the landscape. The next party or trip off-base. I figured out ways to clearly

separate my experiences of work and play so that I would leave with happy memories.

I didn’t write much about the work because it was the last thing I wanted to

think about, focus on, after a day in the lab. I also stopped caring about the

results. That was someone else’s job. My boss, my colleagues in Britain. My

job was to keep the machines running, producing numbers, and send the data back

to them. Theirs was to analyse it, inform me of its quality if anything needed

changing, and look for new and interesting results. I often felt they weren’t

keeping their end of the bargain though my boss was always supportive, even

when she must have wondered what we were doing with our days, so many instruments

were down. Some people were great and wrote back to me immediately but from

others I got little feedback and eventually figured it wasn’t my problem. I

truly didn’t care about the numbers themselves anymore. My only reason for continuing

relatively conscientiously was that it would be a total waste of my time collecting the

numbers if they were rubbish.

A year after leaving, we’ve just been to the annual conference of the European

Geophysical Union (EGU) in Vienna. It included a special session this year entitled

CHABLIS: Chemistry of the Antarctic Boundary Layer and the Interface with Snow.

Half of the talks and posters were presenting results, and interesting new results

at that, from our campaign at Halley. By measuring lots of different molecules

all at the same time, we found out far more than any one, three, or ten could

have illuminated. Stéph showed us data of NO and NO2,

the concentration of which is ordinarily dominated by oxidant chemistry. Bill,

James, and Zoë presented the oxidants: OH, HO2 and

CH3O2, normally controlled by

NO and NO2. They had each measured their particular molecule

successfully but the numbers didn’t add up. On their own, the numbers couldn’t

be reproduced in models, the ultimate test of our understanding. Alfonso then

showed us halogen oxides: ClO, BrO and, to everyone’s surprise, IO. With the

kind of concentrations he observed with that great big telescope, much higher

than expected, all the other results can be explained.

We’re only talking parts per trillion here (one in 10^12) but it makes all

the difference. The concentrations of halogen oxides that he measured directly

also tie in well with Katie’s results, using a machine that measured hydrocarbons.

How does that work? Well, hydrocarbons react with halogens and these reactions

have been well characterised by laboratory studies. Halogen concentrations at

Halley can be estimated by using a knowledge of these reaction rates and monitoring

how quickly different hydrocarbons are depleted in spring and summer compared

to the high background winter time concentrations when there are no halogens

around. To me, the details of the calculations aren’t the important thing. What

is, is that we needed the year-round data set to get these results, and that

everyone’s different measurements seem to be agreeing with each other, but not

in the way we expected. To get this far we needed not only a huge field campaign

in Antarctica, run by experimentalists like me, but also significant expertise

from laboratory scientists (kineticists who measure reaction rates) and modellers

who tie the numbers all together.

It is scientifically illuminating and also personally gratifying. I had come

to think that the results didn’t matter to me, knowing that I would have worked

just as hard whether we had great results or none. But the truth is, they did

matter, they made all that hard work worthwhile. They gave reason to my days

of grumbles and made me realise my small piece in the large jigsaw. It was an

admittedly important piece, yes, but so were the pieces placed years before

I was employed that made sure we were studying the right molecules, with the

best equipment, in the most appropriate manner. A good campaign requires not

only a well organised infrastructure and practical implementation plan but also

a solid theoretical foundation. The funding proposal written in 2000 states the intention to ‘explore the atmospheric chemistry of the Antarctic boundary layer in far greater detail and for a longer period of time than has been achieved hitherto’. Only now, six years later, are we starting to reap

the rewards. For science, this is a fairly normal time delay. I can however

see how this could be frustrating for journalists who want to report on the

results of a flashy experiment in the here and now, or public who want to know

if their money is being well spent.

We expected halogen chemistry to be important in Spring, when the sun first

creeps above the horizon and zaps salty emissions from the sea. The sunlight

is still weak and brief then and not yet of a short enough wavelength to create

reactive hydroxyl radicals which start dominating and causing mayhem a month

or two later. It appears, however, that halogens are important in the summer

as well. Another piece of that atmospheric jigsaw pops into place.

How is this relevant to the world at large? How does this justify our public

funding? What difference does it make? Again, I can’t tell you any of that with

full confidence yet. We have only just got this piece of knowledge and don’t

yet know everything about it. All I can say is that it’s another bit of understanding

that will be further studied and characterised and incorporated into models

of the world. The snow and ice covered sections will be that little bit more

accurate. Our understanding of how snow and air interact, and therefore how

bubbles in ice cores develop, will be expanded a little more. We will edge on,

bit by bit, filling in the blue of the sky and white of the snow while glaciologists

work on the ice, oceanographers on the sea, biologists on the life, and geologists

on the land.

Going to a conference like this, with 12,000 scientists from hundreds of different

disciplines, teaches me just how well we already understand the earth system.

It’s mind-boggling and humbling and reminds me once again, despite my long periods

of doubt and disinterest, why I always do return to the scientific method and

have faith in its discoveries. I am amazed how much we know of this complex

system, how well the model results correlate with observations. I am convinced

that we understand the fundamental processes that have produced records of the

past and which have created the world we now live in. I don’t want to believe

the over-heating predictions of the future anymore than the next person, but

begrudgingly I do. However, I’ve also seen the results of these model predictions

under a number of scenarios and believe that if we make a deliberate effort

to reduce our emissions, invest in new technologies, increase our efficiency,

and generally recognise the approaching issues facing us, we’ll find a way in

a warmer world that isn’t all doom and gloom.

5 thoughts on “All Change

  1. I think abroad does just mean foreign country. You get the island problem when you use overseas instead.

    Is there a plan to make getting into the boat easier in future?

    And as for the science: Wow!

    BTW, at the end of the new Al Gore film, he makes the point that “we” have managed to solve major environmental problems in the past. He uses the example of the ozone hole (discovered by scientists from BAS, which alone I think justifies all BAS science on the continent forever) and the subsequent accord on CFCs, which reduced CFC emissions practically to zero in a pretty short space of time. Rather than just concentrate on the gloom and doom, it’s also good to remember what can be achieved on the upside.

  2. cheers. I totally agree and am really optimistic about things we can do. I went to an inspiring lecture recently with loads of already applicable suggestions for reducing our climate change impact massively(Royal Institute lecture by Bernard Bulkin called Can Technlogy Save the Planet?)

    As for boat access, boring saga, river licenses have just been issued or Cambridge and I’m on the waiting list. As long as no-one leaves, I stay on the raililngs.

  3. By boat, do you mean something that floats on water and can go places? Are you going to post pictures?

  4. Oddest thing, really… I read your blog back in the Halley days and haven’t recently – and then, today, on my desk lands a missive signed by you in your new position. I thought, wait a minute… that name I know from somewhere…

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