Part 5: Fieldwork II

Thursday 15th November

Ablation Point in the fog

Today, like yesterday, was relatively warm, wet, windy, overcast and foggy. Pretty miserable weather with a cold wet wind and snow. I prefer it when it is colder but dry – this temperature (-03°C, wet, humid), is most unpleasant. Like an English winter!

The weather forecast for tomorrow is better, so we’re planning on heading up Ablation Valley again. There are lots of exciting things to look at there, and we want to take more cosmo samples from the valley glacier moraines. These moraines could be anything between 5,000 and 100,000 years old! Anybody’s guess.

Fieldwork in the fog

Today, we worked in the local area, with Mike doing structural measurements on the ice shelf (measuring the strike and dip of the layers in the ice) while Ian and I did some local cosmo sampling on the older ice-shelf moraines and mapped a terrace along the valley. This terrace is persistently flat at 15m height, and is possibly an old ice-shelf moraine, with granite Palmer Land erratics along its length. It is overlapped by the valley glacier moraines at the head of the valley, so the relationship between them is very interesting. Unravelling this will give us a good understanding of ice-shelf and valley glacier interactions during the last few thousand years, and possibly longer. It was a productive day, but we’re looking forward to going further afield.

I thought I would start of glossary of BAS/Antarctic terms. Here it is:

  • Dingle: a fine, cloudless day
  • Jingly janglies: climbing rack worn when crossing crevassed ground
  • The terms used on the radio:
  • Affirm – yes
  • Negative – No
  • Niner (9)
  • Fife (5)
  • Tree (3)
  • Copy / I copy / Roger – I understand
  • Going clear (end of conversation; you only say over and out when you’re finished talking for ever!)
  • Over – I’ve finished my statement
  • Of course, the full phonetic alphabet is used (alpha, bravo, Charlie…)
  • Fidlet – a Fid in Antarctica for the first time
  • FID – Falklands Independency Survey. Slang for a BAS employee.
  • Scradge – food
  • Beaker – scientist (that’s me)
  • Beard – a GA (That’s Ian)
  • Scradge mechanic – chef
  • Gash – rubbish, waste; chores and duties; anything not good
  • BC – base commander
  • Pup tent – emergency small tent
  • Manfood / manfood box – field ration box
  • Pee flag – demarks where to pee (don’t eat yellow snow)
  • Sked – scheduled radio broadcast. For us, 2030 hours every night.
  • Doo – skidoo
  • Duvet – down-filled jacket
  • Bog chisel – ice chisel; a wooden pole with a metal point for prodding crevasses
  • Kurafid – 1st aid manual for the field
  • Call sign – field party’s name (we’re Sledge Hotel)
  • Sledge – a field party.
  • Lead – a gap in sea ice
  • P-bag – personal sleeping kit
  • Mukluks – thermal insulated boots
  • Ops – Operations group
  • Pulk – fibreglass sledge
  • Man-haul – to tow a sledge behind you when you’re walking
  • SAR – search and rescue
  • Sastrugi  – ridges of windblown snow
  • Snow snake – snakes of windblown snow over the ground
  • Wind slab – hard snow, polished by the wind
  • Slot – a crevasse
  • Trailing skis – pilots trail skis prior to landing to test the ground
  • Weather ob – meteorological observations made prior to flying, usually hourly.
  • Dongler – ventilation for your tent
  • Hoolie – a nasty blow
  • GA/FGA – field assistant, a mountaineer and safety expert.

Saturday 17th November

After a few dull and miserable days – almost a week – we finally had a break in the weather and headed back to Ablation Valley. It started dingle but clouded over in the afternoon. It was about -05°C and felt cool when working and mapping. Mike and Ian dragged their rucksacks on sledges while I carried mine, and I think dragging is easier. I will do that next time.

Taking a cosmo sample from a boulder on a moraine. Photo credit: Ian Hey

It was a very productive day, with four cosmo samples. Each one is about 1kg, taken with a hammer and chisel. This can take hours for particularly tough boulders. Ian normally starts on this while I make my measurements and observations, and then I help if he is still chipping away at the rock. It helps to have someone to watch where the chips fly to. Sometimes they fly past at the speed of a bullet, and you just hear the whistling sound as they whizz by. Needless to say, we wear safety goggles and tuck ourselves away into our jackets and hoods. Ian has compared geological fieldwork to shopping with his mother – apparently we do like to browse! So it was a long day, back to camp at about 7 PM. Although it is only about 4 km away, we are all exhausted by walking in the snow all day.

We are achieving a lot, and are about halfway through our time here. There remains a lot to do. I am planning a treat tomorrow – clean thermals! We hope for more good weather for more big days to the other valleys, but tomorrow is forecast to by overcast and snowing again. So it may be a morning of stone counts or ice structural measurements near Moutonnée Point.

Took some good photos of the lake ice pressure ridges and the scenery, with atmospheric nacreous clouds. They are high clouds made of ice particles, which refract the sunlight, so that the cloud glows or has a rainbow in it.

Sunday 18th November

Fieldwork in Erratic Valley. Photo credit: Ian Hey

An excellent day out at Erratic Valley. Despite the forecast it was dingle and beautiful and warm. I even took off my Paramo jacket for walking across the lake! It was however a long day, man-hauling (or woman hauling) it back to the tents at about 1930 and not eating until 2030. Dinner late is always a problem as it interferes with our sked (radio broadcast), which is always at 2030 local time.

Local time is 3 hours behind the UK time, which is known here as Zulu. All the flights operate on Zulu time, and met observations must be given in Zulu. This can lead to some confusion about times on the skeds, and you must be very clear about whether you mean local or zulu time! It’s quite common to hear people say something like, “Affirm, affirm, we’ll radio in with a met observation at 10 zed.”

John Woodward of Northumbria University came to talk to us on our sked tonight, which was nice, but unfortunately the radio connection was poor so it was difficult to hear him. He’s off to the Ellseworth mountains in a few days, to fly small planes over the blue ice down there.

Taking cosmogenic nuclide samples in Erratic Valley. Photo credit: Ian Hey

Erratic Valley was very interesting, and we took 4 cosmo samples from Palmer Land granite erratic boulders. We found these at elevations of up to 82 m, above the valley glacier moraines, which stratigraphically overly this granite-bearing drift. This may suggest that an ice-shelf at some point in the past was at up to 82 m altitude in Erratic Valley, after which the local valley glacier readvanced over this drift. We plan to return for more fieldwork in Erratic Valley if we have time, as we’d like to look at the terminal moraines of the glacier in more detail, to better understand the stratigraphic relationship with the more recent ice-shelf moraines. We now have 20 cosmo samples, so we are making good progress. Day 13 and nearly halfway through; lots has been done but there are still places we haven’t been and there is still lots left to do.

It took two hours to walk across the lake to Erratic Valley (including a few photo stops), and 2 hours home again. I dragged my bag on a sledge, which seemed easier than carrying it. It is not possible to get into a good stride in the snow; every now and then your foot sinks deep and breaks your stride. It is only about 4 km across the lake, but it feels a lot longer! The forecast for tomorrow is bland; grey, cloudy and windy; so we will work at Moutonnée Point.

The ice structures across the lake are pretty spectacular. This afternoon a few meltwater ponds have appeared on the ice for the first time, and the ice push ridges were perfectly reflected. They were sometimes green, perhaps reflecting incursion of tidal waters. The pools bubbled slightly, as bubbles in the ice melted.

Monday 19th November

This morning we were all a little tired after a few strenuous days and late nights, so we had a lazy morning, with bacon sandwiches for brunch. We also had a wash! I washed my hair. It was sunny and still so it felt warm, but judging by the way my hair froze immediately it must have been cold.  I also called my husband at home for the first time. It was the first time we’d spoken in three weeks and our first communication at all for two, so it was great to speak on the satellite phone, even if it was only for five minutes. He was impressed that I had flown the plane!

We all went up to Moutonnée Point in the afternoon and sampled one granite boulder (where it was extremely windy, for some reason), and then took structural measurements of the ice shelf. It was very beautiful among the pressure ridges. Now that it has been a little warmer for a few days, the melt has started. There are a few ponds reflecting the ice above, and dripping icicles that are great to take photos through. The foliation (layers) in the ice controls its melting, meaning that it forms attractive and unusual pinnacles and ribs. So, an enjoyable and productive day. We all feel rested and ready for another big day tomorrow.

I feel clean. It is my hair that I notice in the field – the rest of me is kept reasonable with wetwipes (a wonderful invention, if you can stop them freezing). So it feels brilliant to have clean hair. However, making enough water to wash means spending all morning in camp, melting snow on the primus (which we usually do in bad weather, when you don’t want to go outside, let alone strip and pour water over yourself!).

Wednesday 21st November

Mapping moraines in Moutonnee Valley

Yesterday we ventured into Moutonnée Valley. It was very productive (we found many roche moutonnées), but we were all a little tired and apathetic. Still, we collected four cosmo samples and picked up some reflective markers from the old gravel strip runway. As part of the Antarctic Treaty we are trying to clean up the area and remove signs of human presence; Ian has so far removed an empty oil drum, an old manfood box from the 1970s (we ate the sugar from it), some skidoo oil, and some glacier poles from an old depot. Removing these reflective markers is a continuation of that work.

The manfood box was brilliant. It was still sealed, but we opened it up to take a look. Noone was brave enough to try out the Meat Bar, but the sugar was fine, and the cocoa powder and soup were all recogniseable and we have very similar equivalents in the manfood boxes today. Some brilliant 1970s vintage packaging. Custard powder doesn’t seem to have changed much.

It felt a long way from camp. I was carrying a large rucksack, and had to focus everything on stepping in Ian’s footsteps to get home. In light of this, and of the vast amounts of gravel piling up, ready to be counted, today was a camp day. Mike and I counted 14 bags of stones – that’s 700 individual pebbles! But we made significant headway. Tomorrow we are going across the lake again, and we shall be rested and raring to go.

Beginning to formulate hypotheses for the glacial landforms that we have seen. In any case, it promises to be an interesting story.

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