POLE POSITION – A WINTER AT ROTHERA

WELCOME TO THE FACILITY

Rothera is an interesting place, since it was first established in the 1970’s it has grown organically into the current mix of gleaming, state of the art infrastructure and, shall we say, “lived in” barracks, hangars and workshops that have weathered a fair few antarctic winters and bear the subsequent scars to prove it. In my view it lacks the cinematographic quality of Halley station, where one constantly feels on the set of the next Star Wars installment, but it more than makes up for it by sitting snugly on one of the most gloriously, stunningly, breathtakingly beautiful crannies of the Antarctic peninsula. I shall come back to the natural beauty of the place and the excessive use of superlatives in a later blog but for now let me tell you about the base itself and how the whole thing works. The first thing one notices are the names. Every building has one, often reduced to its acronymic essence – therefore Old Bransfield House and New Bransfield House become OBH and NBH respectively. OBH is the old base headquarters, most of the offices are still there, together with the surgery, dry goods stores, bond store, music room, craft room, IT, field ops, weather forecasting, and, I am told, a gym. The building looks like long, low military barracks with a small wooden terrace at the front and a tower sitting at its helm. The tower is vital as it directs all airplane traffic and spots trespassing seals and skuas who are bold enough to step, and sometimes lie, on the runway. The whole point of Rothera is the airstrip. Planes ferry staff to and fro, carry cargo, resupply fresh food, lug fuel drums, enable medivac and offer a vital stepping stone for other aircrafts from all polar nations working further inland. Living at Rothera is actually the equivalent of living on a much smaller version of Heathrow airport and everything revolves around the flying schedule, which, in turn, depends almost entirely on the unpredictable and at times temperamental antarctic weather.

Next to the airstrip sits the plane hangar and fuel farm while NBH is located a 2mns walk away from its older namesake and is the social hub of the base. It is another functionnal looking building on stilts overlooking the sea and the mountains beyond. It houses the canteen, kitchen, food stores, fire response, bar, staff IT room, library and a lounge everyone refers to as the IKEA lounge by virtue of the stylish nordic design and general rickety appearance of its furniture. Then there are the various workshops necessary to the running and maintenance of the base: Fuchs, which is the field guides’ realm, the Generator shed, the garage, the incinerator, the Waste handling facility, and, down by the wharf, the boat shed and the Bonner and the Gerritsz Labs. Finally, encircling the tower like vindictive hobbits setting siege to Cirith Ungol, sit the three dormitories that house the 140 staff on station. They answer to the names of Admirals, Giants and Vikings. In case you’re wondering about the ethymology those are the names of formers sledge dog teams that served before the infamous ban on dogs and other non-native wildlife came into being. Personally I think that Spartans, Huns and Mobsters would have been more fun but frankly, with teams bearing names such as Trogs, Goobers and Hairybreeks it could have been a lot worse.

BIENVENUE A LA BASE

Nous y voila enfin! Rothera, la base principale de BAS, etablie, depuis les annees 70 sur l’ile d’Adelaide, un bloc rocheux d’un peu plus de 2500m de haut quelque peu a l’Ouest de la peninsule Antarctique – ce long doigt crochu qui pointe en direction d’Ushuaia et de toute l’Amerique du Sud. L’ile d’Adelaide est longue de 140km et couverte de glaciers bien que le petit encart ou nous soyons niches perde quasiment la totalite de sa couverture de neige en ete. Cette annee cependant la station est encore immaculee, reluisante sous une epaisse chappe de glace, ce qui est inhabituel pour un mois de Decembre. Des chutes de neige tardives en sont la cause et ce sont elles qui ont aussi retarde de nombreux vols. Heureusement le temps semble s’ameliorer permettant au Dash 7 de reprendre ses allees-venues; petit a petit la base se rempli et la saison commence pour de bon. Conformement au traite Antarctique par lequel sont liees toutes les nations desirant y operer BAS est une mission de recherche scientifique. Il n’y a pas de presence militaire en Antarctique, ni aucune exploitation commerciale et, en principe, pas de revendications territoriales. Qui plus est les ressources sont tres souvent partagees entre nations voisines (au sens de voisines en Antarctique, par exemple la base Neo-Zelandaise est juste a cote de la base des USA, ils travaillent donc tres etroitement ensemble) et les resultats scientifiques sont mis au service de tous, l’evenement le plus notable jusqu’ici ayant ete la decouverte du trou dans la couche d’ozone par BAS a Halley (la plus ancienne station Britannique et la plus importante apres Rothera). BAS dirige une multitude de programmes de recherche dans des milieux aussi varies que la meteorologie, la glaciologie, la biologie marine et terrestre, la chimie atmospherique, l’ecologie et la bio-diversite, l’oceanographie, la climatologie etc. Jusque la tout va bien, mais en Antarctique rien n’est simple. Conduire conjointement tous ces programmes de recherche necessite une infrastructure de soutient phenomenale. Pour commencer tout le materiel, personnel et carburant necessaires doivent etre achemines depuis le Royaume Uni, puis rapatries, soit 32000km aller-retour. Une fois sur place il faut se chauffer, se nourrir, se soigner, se distraire, entretenir la station ainsi que toutes les stations subsidiaires eparpillees plus au Sud vers le coeur du continent. Cela rend le cout de toute recherche polaire absolument prohibitif; quand vous mangez une pomme a Rothera vous pouvez etre certain que vous degustez un des fruits les plus cher de la planete. Cette disparite entre recherche et soutient est evidente a Rothera ou les “Beakers” (surnom des scientifiques) sont en minorite marquee, un fait encore accentue par le projet courant – la construction d’un nouveau local, le “Discovery Building” – qui necessite la presence de 60 ouvriers supplementaires. Nous avons donc des plombiers, des electriciens, des menuisiers, des chauffagistes, des medecins, des guides de montagne, des chauffeurs de grues, de pelleteuse, de bateaux a moteur, des specialistes radio, des ingenieurs de tous acabits, des pilotes d’avion, des plongeurs qui n’ hesitent pas a se jeter a l’eau ete comme hiver ET: des cuisiniers! Tout ca va faire bien des bouches a nourrir.

2 responses to “POLE POSITION – A WINTER AT ROTHERA”

  1. Stephane Servin avatar
    Stephane Servin

    Looks like you are having an interesting time, How many staff do you have in the kitchen with you?
    most important question is when is winter arriving ….. as that will make the place a very different world, have you had some input from seniors that have done a winter already.
    Have fun and stay safe

    Like

  2. Hi Don P, winter hasn’t yet arrived though the 24hr daylight is over now. They were five of us chefs at the height of the season, when we had 150 staff to feed throughout the day but the outgoing winter chef – whom I am replacing – has gone home and another is due to leave next week which will leave three of us to keep the station well fed. Then I’ll be on my own in winter with a team of about 25 people, can’t wait! Hope you and all the family are keeping well, StH

    Like

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