Sunday 20 December 2015

Sky Blu

Sky Blu

74º 51’ South    71º 32’ West

The sun circles the sky, never dropping to the horizon, but never rising that high either. It does not get dark, in fact being a few weeks away from mid-summer here, there is not even a gloaming. Time flows at a different rate here.  Without the anchor of the diurnal cycle, the days merge together, time stretches and compresses depending on weather and work.

The landscape is equally alien; a few islands of rock stick out of an ocean of ice that continues in all directions for hundreds of miles. Very occasionally a snow petrel gracefully glides by; otherwise the human inhabitants of Sky Blu are the only living things until you reach close to the coast.  Other than our insignificant feeling camp, there is nothing but ice, rock and sky. This is the Antarctic continent.

A pyramid tent at Sky Blu with the midnight sun in the background
I am just back from Sky Blu, a fuel depot and blue ice runaway at the Southern end of the Antarctic peninsular, about 450 miles (or a roughly 4 hour flight) to the South of Rothera. Sky Blu lies just to the South of a Nunatak call Lanzeroti which rises about 1000ft out of the ice. The predominate wind is from the North, blowing for long distances across the smooth ice cap, before being forced over, and accelerating down, the Southern side of Lanerzoti. This strong katabatic wind remove any fresh snow from the areas to the South of this peak, creating an area of flat blue ice. This has been flagged to create a 1km blue ice runway.

A pyramid tent and communications melon hut with Mendez, one of the local nunataks in the background.
This runway allows the largest of the BAS planes, a Dash 7, to land here and depot drums of fuel. This fuel depot is used to refuel the much smaller twin otters to allow them to support deep field science projects. Planes from various nationalities also use the runway, often to change from wheels to board skis.  Other than the runway there is; a couple of melon huts, a few tents, three underground garages, and currently about 700 drums of aviation fuel.

A twin otter parked on the blue ice runway. A lot of the work at Sky Blu is associate with dealing with the aircraft.
I first arrived here on the 27th of October in some very Scottish weather; cloudy, windy, with poor visibility. It was a bit of a baptism of fire; as not was there a lot of work to do opening up the camp,  but there was also a lot to do to help the I-Beam land train project get packed up and ready to go. This involved working to midnight or later most nights, and some early starts. Being early in the season, it was pretty cold; below -20 ºC most days, with some days below -30ºC. It was also often windy. However, working late at night, early in the season meant that we got some amazing light as the sun would dip and touch the Southern Horizon around midnight.

A caravanning trip Antrartic style. The two Pisten Bullies and loads which make up the I-Beam traverse about to set off.
I-Beam departed after about a week after I arrived, after which various visitors came and went, mechanical issues with the stoves and vehicles slowly got sorted. The camp got set up and things slowly started to calm down, and a daily rhythm got established.

For myself most days start around 6.30am, with a runway inspection. Weather observation are made and transmitted back to Rothera at 6.55am, and repeated every hour until we are stood down which can easily be until 9pm, or later. Between weather reports; I help to depot any fresh fuel, refuel any twin otters, organise cargo to be moved, request food and supplies from Rothera, and generally look after the camp. During some quiter periods, I have managed to get out for a couple of recreational mountaineering trips up some of the surrounding nunataks.
The inside of the Communications hut. This hub of sky blu, and can get quite busy at times.
The number of people at Sky Blu varies, with a minimum of three people (one field assistant, and two mechanics). However, it is usually busier than that with various pilots, scientists, field assistants or others passing through. The maximum number we have had overnighting so far is ten. With more than about six it can start to feel pretty cramped in the comms hut where all the communications, cooking, eating and socialising goes on.

On the summit of Mendez nunatak during a brief recreational trip out.
The weather has a significant affect on the pace of life at Sky Blu. Due to combination or bad weather here and at Rothera, there have been some pretty quite period where only a couple of planes have passed through during the week. During these periods a lot of reading and tea drinking goes on. The winds howls down from the North, blowing snow gets forces under door and into tents, and the sun, just visible through the blowing snow, still circles the sky.