Antarctic Astronomy Diaries 2002/03

   

   
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Saturday, January 04, 2003

To the Plateau!

Sunday, 5 January 2003

Another peaceful night on the l'Astrolabe, then breakfast. Sunday is croissant day on the ship, much to Tony's delight. Being Sunday, we also allowed ourselves each a brief Iridium voice call back home. Standing on the helicopter deck of the l'Astrolabe with the hand-held phone, the link was almost as good as if I had been using a mobile phone in Sydney.

Overnight they'd cleaned up most of the fish from the barge, making it more or less presentable again and allowing us to have an easy ride across to the wharf. Today the weather is even better than yesterday; bright sunshine, blue skies, almost no wind; in a word - perfect.

We spent the morning idly watching penguins go about their daily lives. Overhead, the helicopter was ferrying boxes from the ship to the various buildings around the station. It's certainly a quick and easy way to organise an express delivery. The helicopter is very beautiful and is bright yellow, roughly the colour of the "Bananas in Pyjamas". Appropriately, its registration number is "B3".

A surprisingly large amount of the ice sheet has broken away overnight, with the result that we can now see we're sitting on one of several small islands. When we had first arrived, it wasn't quite clear which bit of land was attached to which. We decided to take one more look for the Emperors, and to see if any of the seals had noticed that the piece of ice they were on yesterday wasn't there any more. Indeed, several seals were in the water, occasionally emerging to take a breath and have a bit of a look around. It appears that if you want to see any action out of a seal it's best to have an underwater camera.

Meanwhile, back in the penguin rookery, a horrible scene was unfolding. A large chick, perhaps three-quarters grown, stumbled from its nest and into the nest of another pair of parents. The adult birds, rather than giving it a helping hand back to its own nest, viciously attacked it - pecking it savagely and pushing it until eventually they had killed it. It was exactly as one of the penguin researchers had described to me earlier: "It's war out there". I guess it's just as well that penguins don't have hand guns.

One of the other interesting things about Dumont d'Urville is that it is just a few km from the South Magnetic Pole. A magnetic compass here points vertically downwards, rendering it worse than useless as a navigation aid. (One might expect that in a reasonable, properly ordered world you then be able to find your way around with a plumb bob. Unfortunately, this is not the case.) A GPS receiver is a wonderful thing to have at DdU.

Over lunch Barbara explained that the fish they had caught last night (Trematomus Hansonii) was a member of the much larger order Notothenioidea, which comprise some 90% of all Antarctic fish. This order includes the Ice Fish, Channichtaxdae, famous for having white blood. All Antarctic fish have evolved with some amazing adaptations to cope with the cold - currently the sea temperature is about -1.8 C (It's not frozen because it's so salty, but fish blood is not nearly as saline, forcing nature to use other tricks.) The Trematomus Hansonii probably had an interesting tale to tell as well, but as far as we could see it was just plain ugly. Even Barbara seemed hard pressed to put in a good word for it. (She did, however, tell us lots of interesting stuff about the other fish, and also gave us some great tips for cooking pasta the Italian way.)

We also chatted with Patrice, who heads the logistics section of the French Antarctic program. Patrice had just flown back from Dome C, having led the overland traverse that takes all the heavy gear (including the AASTINO and the other UNSW equipment) into Dome C. He told us that in a typical traverse there are nine vehicles making up the caravan. The first, a Kaesbohrer, levels the snow and clears a path, while the others, all Caterpillar "Challenger" tractors, pull the heavy sleds along. In the first 100 km from the coast, the elevation rises 1700 m. After that, the remaining 1100 km to Dome C is almost flat, with the plateau gently rising only another 1500 m over that distance. The traverse is currently on its way back from Dome C.

Lunch was excellent, with diced beetroot, zucchini quiche and roast lamb. Dessert also looked promising, but we were dragged away from it for a ride in the helicopter (to be honest, we didn't take much dragging). Neither Tony nor Jon had been in a helicopter before, and for your first flight in one to be over DdU is a very special treat. "B3" rose effortlessly into the air, and once we were up a couple of hundred metres shot us across the station and out over the sea at 90 knots. We reached Cap Prudhomme, on the mainland, within a couple of minutes and flew up to the top of the ridge where the Twin Otter was waiting to take us to Dome C.

We jumped out of the helicopter to find the Canadian Twin Otter crew busy refuelling the plane from 200 litre drums. Meanwhile, the helicopter went back to the l'Astrolabe to collect all our luggage, returning a few minutes later. We hoped no-one would notice what a totally unreasonable amount of stuff we'd brought with us. If they did, they were too polite to say anything. Unfortunately for Tony, a litre bottle of CRC-26 penetrating oil packed with his luggage was leaking, and the oil was doing what it does best - penetrating. So far it had managed to get into his boots, clothes, and a bag of little tools. We put the more disgustingly oily items into a plastic bag, and will try to sort out the whole sorry mess out when we get to Dome C.

The four-hour flight to Dome C was smooth and efficient. We shared the back of the plane with three 200-litre fuel drums, some extra balloons we're bringing for the Dome C meteorologist, and a huge pile of luggage for which we had only ourselves to blame. About two hours into the flight Jon's eagle eyes picked out the line of tractors making up the traverse plodding its way back from Dome C. It was incredible to find anything in the vast featureless expanse of white.

We arrived at Dome C in ideal weather. The initial impressions are of a hemisphere of pure blue sky arching across a flat disc of pure white ice that extends to the horizon in all directions, of flags hanging limply on their poles and occasionally giving a lethargic flutter as the merest puff of wind goes by, and of a group of camels tied together in a row at the entrance to the station.

The camels turned out to be made of plywood, but everything else is real and underlines the exceptional potential of this place as an astronomical observatory. We were greeted by the Station Leader, who helped unload our gear from the plane and onto a Skidoo for transport to our tents.

Clocks shift again by a further two hours, so the chef had thoughtfully prepared an early dinner for us. Karim, an astronomer from the University of Nice, showed us around the station, helped us locate our 4 tonnes of equipment that had arrived on the last traverse, and helped identify potential sites for our AASTINO. He also kindly offered us the use of his "Astrophysics tent" - a large heated Weatherhaven - to assemble our equipment in. This will be a godsend - thank you, Karim.

Tomorrow should see a lot of action!

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