The coldest place on earth

May 14, 1999

Dear diary, it's -30 oC it's been dark for a month and it's snowing againI Scientist Alex Gaffikin (below) describes life on a research station somewhere in the Antarctic.

March 7 1999

There is no crime, no strangers, no cars, no fresh fruit or veg, no television, no churches, no National Lottery or Millennium Dome, no mud, rocks or treesI But there are spectacular sunsets, clean fresh water, stunning ice cliffs, mirages of icebergs, emperor penguins, space and time, chocolate, buildings on stilts, pyramid tents and the World ServiceI I am on Halley, Britain's most remote research station, perched on a floating ice shelf, at the start of a two-year stint working as a meteorologist in the Antarctic. It seems a lot longer than three months since I left Britain on the Royal Research Ship Bransfield, southward bound.

My job is to record daily temperatures and launch weather and ozone balloons as part of a long-term study into climate change. It sounds easy, but this is the Antarctic. For a start, it is nearly winter: soon it will be totally dark for weeks on end. It is also unbelievably cold - in fact in winter it is, literally, the coldest place on earth.

There are three main buildings at Halley, all on steel legs. Earlier bases were built directly on the ice. Eventually, they were buried by accumulating snow and crushed under the pressure - which meant they weren't around much more than ten years.

March 10

There are some oddities about Antarctica that will soon, I guess, become commonplace to me. Halley is dry, very, very dry - anything I spill evaporates in minutes. Wet T-towels dry quickly and I feel permanently thirsty.

There are no insects, so no cobwebs. It is the kind of place that, back home, would be infested with spiders. Yet I've seen only one spider since I got here. It came in a packing case and was frozen solid.

And there is the rubbish problem. All rubbish has to leave Antarctica, which means that everything has to be separated - plastics, paper, metal and glass for landfill in the Falkland Islands, waste oils and fuels for recycling, while aerosols have to be packed in plastic bags for return to the UK. We spend an amazing amount of time cleaning and sorting rubbish.

March 15

Last night I did the midnight meteorological observation, which includes recording the temperature, speed and direction of the wind. The sun set at 11.20pm. I came out of the labs and a golden crescent moon was on my left just above the horizon. To the right the sun had just set and the sky went from being red to orange to yellow to green to light blue, broken by a few high, streaky clouds. Then the blue got darker and darker until a few stars appeared overhead. It was freezing cold (about -30 oC) but I stood and gawped for ages.

April 1

Typical working day. I get up and have my Weetabix in the dining room and then head over to the lab - a five-minute walk. Just going outside is a mammoth task. I've donned an all-over quilted suit, warm boots, my face mask, a scarf, clear goggles, a warm hat, my radio and three pairs of gloves. It's the morning shift. I have to do meteorological observations every three hours from 9am, and ozone observations. The sun is low in the sky so I only manage a couple of ozone checks.

The ozone hole above the Antarctic appears every spring. Finding it was the first proof we had that something very worrying was happening to our atmosphere - and that it was caused by man's actions.

Ozone, which is found in the stratosphere, about 10-20 kilometres above the earth's surface, plays a crucial role in absorbing the sun's harmful ultraviolet radiation. Small UV doses result in nothing worse than sunburn, but large ones can cause cataracts and skin cancer and damage the growth of plants.

The breakdown of the ozone layer is caused by complex reactions involving chlorine and bromine, chemicals released by man-made gases called CFCs, which were first manufactured for use in fridges, aerosol cans and fire extinguishers. In 1987, several governments agreed to try to reduce the amount of CFCs being produced in a bid to protect the ozone layer.

Thanks to this agreement, the amount of chlorine and bromine in the atmosphere has dropped recently, which means that in time the ozone hole should become smaller, and eventually close up completely. But we're still looking at 20-30 years of measurements by people like me to verify that this is indeed happening.

April 18

I have just finished a week-long night watch shift and am trying to adjust back to days again. Everyone on the station takes their turn at being night watchman, checking no fires have started. Fire is a real risk in such a dry environment.

For the past week we have had gale force winds and storms. On my watch I had to venture out at midnight and it was terribly exciting. The buildings glow strange colours and light up the swirling snow, which looks like a fast-flowing white river. When it blows the temperature soars. We had temperatures of -10 oC, which, believe me, is warm. But then the wind dropped and so did the temperature - back down to -30 oC.

For the first couple of nights on watch I took part in the doctor's experiments. We have a doctor to look after us in case of emergency. When he is not treating us he is doing research; investigating our diet and fat levels and how we cope with living in winter darkness - do our hormonal levels change, for instance? He took blood from me and sat me in front of a very bright light that is supposed to simulate sunshine. In less than two weeks the sun will set permanently and I will be begging Doc to lend me the light again.

One of the night-watch duties is to make bread for breakfast, clean the loos and the bar, do the meteorological observations at 9pm, 12pm, 3am and 6am and wake people up. I made pancakes for everyone one morning and zillions of doughnuts - suspiciously successful.

This week I start the weather balloon shift. I have to measure snow stakes, take air samples, and of course, launch the balloons. The snow stakes measure the amount of snow that has accumulated overnight:we want to know what the average snowfall is and how it builds up. This will help us interpret the data we get from drilling ice cores - one of the best ways to look at the climate of the past.

As snow falls, ice stacks up just like the rings in a tree. My colleagues are able to calculate the age of the ice, the temperature at the time it froze and what atmospheric conditions were like. By comparing the earth's past climate with that of the present we will be able to predict what may happen in the future. At least that is the theory.

The weather balloons are very successful too. One today reached 15hPa. The pressure at ground level is about 1000hPa. So 15hPa is about 30,000 metres up in the air. We would normally expect the atmospheric pressure to burst the balloon at this height so it is a good measurement to get.

April 21

Two weeks to go until the sun sets and then it will be four months of darkness. I experience my first aurora - huge green clouds lighting up the night sky and drowning out the stars. We all got up at about 2am to catch it. Auroras are always exciting to my colleagues because they are the visible signs of a storm in space. Whenever the sun has a big storm, charged-particles rush towards the earth and smash into our magnetic field. These storms can wipe out satellites and jumble our communications systems. All the atmospheric activity caused is recorded at Halley and the data fed into computers to be used by researchers all over the world.

April 26

Very cold today, so things keep breaking down. People do not work well in the cold either. I have to measure snow stakes in the afternoon. Everything takes twice as long in the Antarctic. I have to take my gloves off to measure the stakes, then pull them back on to warm my hands, then off again for the next snow stake, then on again etc. Meanwhile, my goggles steam up so I pull them off, only to find my eyelashes getting icy.

The snow stakes are a long way from the lab and I start fretting about what will happen when winter comes. I spend the afternoon sewing silver foil onto a flag. Hopefully the flag will reflect torch light, enabling me to find the stakes even in the winter gloom.

April 28

Soon it will be Midwinter's Day (June 21). This is equivalent to Christmas back home and we will all exchange homemade presents and have a party. When you are a long way from home it is good to mark events. The other week we had a barbecue to celebrate the sun going down. It was probably the coldest barbecue I have ever been to. The oldest person on the base lowered the British flag and we drank a glass of champagne, which soon turned to slush. We may be missing our families and friends but at least parties, even icy ones with only 15 other people, raise our spirits.

Alex Gaffikin, 22, is a meteorologist working with the British Antarctic Survey, responsible for government scientific research in the region. Three research stations are manned throughout the year - Halley, the centre for studies of the earth's atmosphere; Bird Island, which focuses on birds and seals; and Rothera, where earth and biological scientists work.

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