The training programme

Wouter van Werre | 5 Dec 2019

Before we can go searching for the meteorites, we have had to complete an extensive training program. For Romain and myself it was a very packed schedule, as we had to start from scratch. Katie and Geoff, on the other hand, had already taken some of these modules last year so they did not have to repeat all of them. The training program covers everything from how to be safe on the base, to how to record meteorological observations in the field to pass onto the weather forecasters at Rothera. Due to the poor weather the final module was delayed by a few days, but on Monday we were finally able to complete the program.

Romain already described our overnight stay just outside the base, but I thought it would be interesting to explain the different training modules we had to take since our arrival.

One of the first modules we all have to take is about aircraft safety. While the Rothera Research Station is the place where we all live and work, it is also an active airfield with the runway in the middle of the base.
Therefore we all have to be aware of the procedures for crossing the runway, how to approach the aircraft when they are on the apron (taxiway area) and how to communicate with the pilots. Afterwards we also learnt what to expect when we will be flown into field by Twin Otter aircraft.

The IT/communications team gave us a brief overview of the available IT resources, such as public computers and phone booths, as well as how to get access to the internet on personal laptops. They also introduced us to the VHF radio equipment and protocols that are in place for communications around the base.

One of the field guides walked us through all the clothing that BAS has issued to us, how the different layers work together and how to stay warm in the polar environment. All the different activities that are undertaken by the people here on base, as well as those in the field, require very different clothing systems. While we covered this before during our pre-deployment training with BAS in Cambridge, this served as a very useful reminder

Later on in the week we also went through the field medical box with one of the doctors on the station, walking us through all the medical kit available to us and how we can make best use of it.

Some of the modules, such as skidoo training and gator training are very hands-on. The gator training covers the use of the small wheeled vehicles, called gators, which are used to move around the base. By now the snow has been cleared from all the main paths around base, making these gators the perfect vehicle for moving around goods. Outside of the base there is still plenty of snow, which requires the use of the skidoos. During the skidoo training module the vehicle technicians took a group of us out on the skidoos and into the local travel area. Here we learnt how to safely operate the skidoos, particularly on slopes, where you have to be careful not to “roll the ‘doo”. They also showed us the outline of the local travel area, which is where people can move around safely on their own. This area is clearly delineated using flags and drums. We were also taught how to do the pre-start checks and basic maintenance tasks on the skidoos, which was particularly useful for us, as we will have to do these on our own when we go out into the field to look for meteorites.

One of the more surprising modules we had to take was the meteorological observations module. All field parties have to be able to record the current weather conditions and transmit these back to Rothera, especially when the aircraft are due to land at the campsite. Together with the forecasts that are generated by the forecasters on base these can be used to make decisions about the aircraft movements. We covered the basics of estimating the wind direction and velocity, the amount of cloud cover, cloud types and cloud height, as well as visibility and contrast. All these observations have to be transmitted hourly if there are any planned aircraft operations in the area.
This was a very interesting module for me, as I had no prior experience with taking structured weather observations (and I never knew there were so many different types of clouds!).

Far and away the largest group of training modules we had to take are the field modules (1, 2, 3, 4 and 5). These cover all the skills required to live in a field camp and safely move across the Antarctic terrain. For example, field module 1 covers the basics of how to use the Primus stoves and Tilley lamps and how to set up a 2-person mountain tent. The camping trip Romain wrote about earlier is part of field module 2, where you go out in a small group a few kilometres outside of the Rothera base. When we were on the hillside we were taught how to put up a pyramid tent, where to put the crates with cooking equipment and food, where to put the stove and Tilley lamp and how to arrange your sleeping area. We then had to cook some food (by melting some snow first!) and we stayed the night. It is amazing to realise that the pyramid tents, the Tilley lamps, and primus stoves are all the same design as those used by the likes of Scott and Shackleton.

Geoff and Katie joined us for the field modules 3 and 4 which cover basic mountaineering and crevasse rescue skills. We practised walking with crampons, climbing up and down steep snow-covered slopes, and walking on ice. We also had to practice being roped up to another member of our group, how to arrest a fall if the person you’re roped up with falls into a crevasse, and how to anchor the rope into the ground. We did all of this outside on one of the hills just next to the base. We then went inside to practice other crevasse rescue skills such as abseiling down into the crevasse, jumaring back up the rope, and how to set up a five-to-one pulley system to lift someone out. While I found this module very interesting, and I really enjoyed the ropework and the abseiling, I do hope we never have to use these skills!

Snow stake crevasse rescue training. [Credit: Katie Joy]
Learning how to hack up a hill wearing crampons. Not Katie’s favourite part of the trip. [Credit: Wouter van Verre]
Geoff learning the ropes in rescue training. [Credit: Katie Joy]

The final training module took all four of us back outside again, this time to practice linked travel on a skidoo. With linked travel a pair of skidoos and a pair of sledges are connected by a heavy rope. This way, if one skidoo does fall into a crevasse, the other skidoo will arrest the fall. Each skidoo has a rescue sack on the back with the gear required for a crevasse rescue, which we practiced in the earlier modules. The first sledge contains all the necessities to make a base camp (known as a full ‘unit’), while the rear sledge contains a half ‘unit’, from which we can make an emergency camp.
It takes a bit of practice to keep the skidoos synchronised so that the rope is just slack, but not so slack that the rear skidoo drives over the top of the rope.

Geoff and Romain learning how to drive in linked travel with two sledges. [Credit: Katie Joy]

This is an overview of the type of training a field party might receive before heading out into the continent. There are, naturally, many other training courses available as well for those who do other jobs on station.
For example, anyone who expects to launch and retrieve boats into the sea has to learn how to drive the tractors and operate the cranes.

All in all it has been a busy week and full of training and testing our science equipment. The training courses have been very useful and definitely add a bit of confidence before going into the field.

Many thanks to all the people on station who have helped us prepare during the past week and a half!

Training time around the station

Katie Joy | 24 Dec 2018

The weather is mild — hovering around 0°C — and the weather has been a mix of cloudy with some light snow and beautiful sun today.  Depending on weather and plane operations there is a plan to try and get Julie and I out to the field towards the end of this week, and so get ready for departure to the field I have to undergo several training sessions to learn how to been in a BAS field party.

Pyramid tent up and snow cat

Last night we took a snow-cat vehicle and went up to the top of a hill close to reptile ridge and  spent the night camping out to test out the field p-box (personal kit bag — there are a lot of acronyms to learn) and how to put up and take down the orange pyramid tent we will be using for our field stay. We have nice warm thick down sleeping bags and a thick set of mats to protect us from the snow below. As it is 24 hours of sunlight here, we need face masks to sleep well – I need to do a bit of practising with mine so that it doesn’t try and slide off my face at night. We will be using primus stoves for cooking and a tilly lamp for heating the tents – I haven’t used either of these before (last time I saw a tilly lamp I think was when I was in the Scouts…) so will take a bit of practice to use mentholated spirits to heat up the element that vaporizes kerosene. These systems are BAS field camp tried and tested, and require little fuel (good for light weight field party travel) and only simple maintenance.  The night past quickly — it was still and quiet up on the hillside outside of station – and we made it back for a late breakfast.

Learning the ropes

Later on I did my snowmobile induction training, learning to drive the different types that BAS use and try out driving on a range of slopes. I haven’t driven on one for about 6 years, but was easy to remember what to do and great to wizz along on the snow (it will be a lot bumpier on the blue icefields we are heading to as the surface is scalloped by the wind). Julie and I did some ropework practice on a local snow slope for how to rescue people from crevasse situations — setting up safety belay points, pulley systems and different types of anchors using snow stakes and ice axes. I have been practising taking out the GPS on all these trips to record the travel so that I am prepared for collecting our in field tracks and ground cover. I am pleased to say (thanks to Andy’s training and patience back in Manchester) that I seem to be able to operate the thing ok and get the data safely into my mapping software to plot out the travel — a small victory!

Looking under the hood – learning what the snowmobile engine looks like and how to check for oil and fuel levels

Tomorrow, Christmas day, is a holiday here on station where all the staff get a chance to relax and eat a big meal (the food here is plentiful and really tasty) so a chance to relax in between training and packing preparations.

Arrival at Rothera

Katie Joy | 22 Dec 2018
Departure — BAS’s Dash 7 plane on the runway at Punta Arenas airport.

The Dash 7 aircraft got us into Rothera research station at around 15:30 yesterday afternoon. It was a cloudy flight across the southern ocean – but when the clouds broke the sea below looked angry with white horses. Rothera is located on the south-eastern end of Adelaide island at Lat. 67°35’8″S, Long. 68°7’59″W — just off the Peninsula itself.  The island is made up of several different volcanic sequences emplaced through the Jurassic (~150 million years ago) to the Eocene (about 50 million years ago) (the Point itself is gabbrodiorite for all you geologists — download a map here).

Coming into landing on the gravel runway we got a great view of the surrounding islands and the surrounding bay. The open water around the base is a surprise after visiting the US McMurdo base in the past when I was on ANSMET — there the sea is iced up until about late January or early February, so it is strange and exciting to see so many shades of blue as the ice bergs bob by around Adelaide island. Thanks to Andy and Al our pilots for the flight and explaining about the aircraft (it was built in 1988 and originally used at City Airport in London).

Small islands and ice bergs in Marguerite Bay to the south of Rothera point
Rothera Point, on the eastern end of the Wright Peninsula on Adelaide Island. The large dark strip is the runway where we were heading into land. The station itself is located to the right in this view.

Rothera station is made up of several different buildings all built at different times, and Kat gave us a tour of the site this morning. The buildings serve different functions from science labs (including a great marine biology lab with examples of local sealife), the food galley, kitchens and recreation areas, accommodation blocks, waste disposal (including a large recycling centre), field guide equipment area (where you can find everything from tents to down jackets to ski equipment), the power station and water desalination plant, mech centre for vehicle maintenance… and numerous others that I haven’t been to yet. The Lost Meteorites project has been given our own lab to set up in and I have just been checking the meteorite collection kits and equipment which arrived on the JCR ship last week.

A little bit of Manchester in Antarctica – Lowry print on the wall of the accommodation block.

There are currently a lot of people on station than normal — about 125 or so, and more due in soon — this is because there is a new wharf construction project starting to accommodate BAS’s new David Attenborough research vessel and there are lots of contractors on site ready to start the build in the New Year. Those of us who arrived yesterday have been getting inducted (thanks to Jess the station manager for making us very welcome!), and have been learning about how to watch out for cold weather injuries, site dangers and aircraft risks.  I have been given a room in Admiral’s house which is a cosy accommodation block and will be my base until we can get out to the field. Walking from there to the galley for lunch involves walking at a safe distance past a group of elephant seals that are currently occupying some of the bridgeways — all part of the local wildlife population along with Skuas and snow petrels that have been flying around.

Tomorrow I head out with Julie our field guide to do some in field training (how to put up the tents, stove training, field gear) and then it is Christmas — a time for everyone on station to relax for the day and enjoy the Christmas decorations that are up and about.

Rothera 2018 Christmas
Rothera Research Station Christmas card

Dec 2018 – Feb 2019 Field Season Plans

Katie Joy | 19 Nov 2018

An update on our field plans…

We are making two separate trips to Antarctica for our first season on the ice. Both field campaigns have different objectives, but come together to lay the ground for our main field expedition in 2019-2020.

Katie flies out to Chile on the 20th December 2018, where after landing in Santiago, she will fly down to the southernmost tip of the South American continent to Punta Arenas, the main Antarctic gateway for the British Antarctic Survey. BAS’s DASH 7 plane will then transport her to Antarctic peninsula, and she will meet up with field guide Julie at Rothera research station. After training, packing the field equipment for transport (and Christmas!) the team of two will be flying out to the deep field via a Twin Otter prop plane for a blue icefield meteorite search reconnaissance mission. The exact field plans will be weather and surface condition dependent, but we are aiming to try and visit several icefields close to the Recovery Glacier region (south of the Shackleton Mountain region). We may get the chance to fly through BAS’s Halley VI Research Station on route to the field. Four weeks of field work will involve searching these sites and collecting any meteorite samples that are found on the ice. The samples will be returned to the UK for further study next year and will provide vital information about which ice fields are productive search areas, and what types of meteorites have emerged at the surface. We will use this knowledge to plan which field site to return to in December 2019 for the main expedition. After four weeks Katie and Julie will fly back to Rothera, and return to the UK in early February.

Close up of season plans supported by the British Antarctic Survey showing the main research station locations. Location of previous meteorites in the region is denoted by a green star. We will be visiting Sky Blu and icefields close to Recovery glacier. [Image: K H Joy]

Geoff will be heading down to Antarctica later than Katie in early January 2019 (following the same route via Chile to the Peninsula). We are hoping to have a day or so overlap in Rothera to touch base and finalise the field equipment unpacking (see previous blog post). Geoff and BAS’s Mike Rose will be heading out to the Sky Blu ice runway, which is a blue icefield used as a transport airstrip. The guys will spend a week or so at the runway site testing the metal detector panel array that was built back in Manchester and in Cambridge. This will help tune the sensitivity of the system to detect metal objects buried at different depths in the ice, to test the electronic signal processing at appropriate skidoo speeds and the ruggedness of the detector array system. We will understand a lot more about the panel performance after these vital tests, which can feed forward to improvements for the main sub-surface meteorite trip in 2019. Geoff will get back to the UK in late January 2019.

Sky Blu Melon hut and ancillary facilities, taken on approach to the runway. The hut and facilities are located about 1.5 kilometres (0.93 mi) from the runway, pictured top left.
The Ice Blu air logistics and ice runway site will be Geoff’s field base in January 2019 [Image: Wikipedia]

Training for life on the Ice (Sept 2018)

Katie Joy | 01 Oct 2018

Fieldwork in Antarctica is a massive logistical and human challenge – from getting scientists to the continent, ensuring that they are trained to go out into the middle of the continent, and actually living and working on the ice, it takes a vast number of highly trained people. Fortunately, BAS are really good at this and have an amazing bunch of people that we are working with – from their Cambridge headquarters, on the bases we will visit and into the field.

To help get us prepared for our upcoming trip Geoff and I joined the new BAS staff for pre-season training. During our four-day intensive course we met a wide range of people from vehicle mechanics, chefs, science support crews, boat swains, base managers and field guides, seal and penguin tagging and monitoring teams, doctors – many of whom have signed up for an amazing 18 month stints down on the ice. We also met some of the other science crews who in the 2018 austral season will be undertaking deep ice drilling and hot ice drilling operations to study past climate on the continent, and others who are studying seal populations on South Georgia Island to understand communities and breeding patterns.

Locations of the BAS bases [Image: BBC]

The training was split into several sessions. First up was and introduction to BAS history, operations, science and practice: BAS operate out of five bases – Rothera, on the peninsula, Halley, on the eastern side of the Weddell Sea, Bird Island and King Edward Point on South Georgia island and  Signy island. People on the bases, on the ships and in the field undertake different science projects – some (like ours) are very seasonal, some run all year round. We got a chance to hear from BAS scientists who run some of these longer term projects,  looked around the Cambridge BAS building and met people who run the archive facility, ice core storage facility and the geology prep and rock stores.

We also got a chance to try on our field kit and check that it all fitted – from insulating boots (very important to get the size and fit right), through to thermal underwear, outer layers and woolly hats – everything was reviewed and items swapped out as needed.

BAS issued polar insulating boots and field kit bags

The last couple of days focused on an intensive and rapid introduction to medical situations and protocols. The polar medical office (British Antarctic Survey Medical Unit ) is run out of Plymouth NHS Hospital and the team travelled up to Cambridge for the training event. In small groups we ran over recognition of life signs and medical problems through to how to bandage up a broken limb, deliver an injection (into an orange!), learn about pain relief options, and about mental health in remote, often stressful, environments. The course were rounded off by undertaking practicals where actors delivered a series of medical scenarios for our group to try and deal with (imagine fending off an imaginary seal whilst trying to deal with someone with a broken leg – that sort of thing…).  Frankly I hope that I never have to put anything I learnt as part of the sessions into practice – but it was an incredibly useful quick fire overview of what to do and how to relay information with people back on station and back in Plymouth if needed.

Geoff and Katie practising how to get out of a Scott polar tent without creating a medical emergency


For further information:

BAS science projects

BAS fieldwork