A day in the life

I’ve had a few questions from people about what a ‘normal’ day at Rothera is like. Here’s a typical example.

My working day usually starts early during the summer – I roll out of bed for a shower at about 6.30am, whilst trying not to disturb my later-rising room-mate too much.  I usually head up to the Ops tower straight away as the top priority is to contact all of our various field parties and collect a 7am meteorological observation from them. This is vital information in Antarctica where the weather changes so quickly, as we need to have a clear picture of how accessible the camps are in case we have to get any planes in to restock or rescue the parties.

Inside of the Ops tower, with a view across Reptile Ridge

These chats with my colleagues in the field can be an entertaining start to the day – some of they guys are very bright and cheerful and have been up and working away for hours; some have clearly just woken up and stuck their sleepy heads out of the tent to see what the weather is doing! Once all of the weather obs are complete, I pass the information on to our forecaster, who then plugs the information into various meteorological models and comes up (usually!) with a pretty decent guess at how the day is going to pan out.

This is the point at which I can snatch a quick breakfast and have a much-needed coffee before heading up for the morning briefing. This is a meeting of minds during which the Ops Manager states where he would like flights to head to that day, the forecaster gives his best guess about the weather in those locations, and then the pilots make the final decision on whether the flights are viable. More often than not the plans have to be torn up and completely rewritten several times to make the most of the contrary Antarctic conditions.

Once the briefing is over it’s back up to the tower to get the 8am met ob and start the morning shift. On a clear day, with lots of flying going on, things can get hectic pretty quickly. Our primary concern is keeping track of all of our aircraft (plus any other operators’ planes that happen to be in the area), making sure that they are aware of each other and passing us regular position reports, so that in the case of an emergency we know exactly where to go and look. The busiest times are when the planes are taking off and landing at Rothera, as we have to follow strict procedures to get fire-fighters in place, ensure that rescue boats are on the water and check that the runway is safe and clear of personnel, debris or creatures – it’s not uncommon to have to dispatch someone to chase straying penguins or seals away with a quad-bike (we call it ‘training’ them).

Meanwhile we also take regular meteorological reports from the field parties and pass these onto any nearby aircraft. Because of the risk of the weather closing in, we work closely with the met observers and forecaster to make sure that the pilots are forewarned of any changes in the visibility or wind speed. Amidst all of this we also keep track of any diving boats on the water and additionally act as a sort of communications hub for the base – answering various different satellite phones and passing messages to the rest of the base on the VHF radio.

Because the flight-following work can be fairly high-intensity, five of us are qualified to work shifts in the Ops tower, keeping it fully manned whenever there are planes in the air. I therefore have to do a careful handover to a colleague before I can head over to the Dining Room and grab some lunch. Fortunately BAS take the quality of their catering extremely seriously, and the chefs always manage to put something pretty appetising together (it nearly always involves hot soup – a bonus after the chilly walk across the base).

The afternoon is an opportunity to catch up on any other jobs that need doing. As Comms Manager, I have a fairly wide remit, and therefore end up doing things as varied as: climbing masts in the cold wind to fix the antenna at the top; reinstalling someone’s broken laptop;  teaching new arrivals how the field radios work or just making sure all of the IT systems keep ticking over. There always seem to be at least a few jobs needing attention on any given day.

Soon, it is time for dinner, and again the chefs will usually have pulled out all of the stops to keep morale on base as high as possible. There is an air of excitement if we’ve had a plane come in from Punta or the Falklands earlier that day – in addition to a few new faces, these usually have a load of ‘freshies’ on board – i.e. fresh fruit, veg and other luxuries that we can’t take for granted down here.

There is still work to be done in the evenings, as we have allocated 15-minute slots to talk to all of the field parties over the radio in turn. This is a fun job – as well as checking that they are all safe and well, it is our opportunity to pass on news from Rothera and the outside world, and also just have a bit of banter with our distant colleagues. Some of the scientists and support staff can be out in the field for months at a time, and particularly during extended periods of ferocious Antarctic weather, they may be sharing a tent 24/7 with just one other person. The evening radio call can therefore be their sole opportunity in the day to talk to someone different and escape momentarily from the confines of their camp.

Once we’ve completed the evening calls and dealt with any requests from the field, that’s usually the end of the working day. Occasionally an all-too-brief window of good weather means that the planes might still be flying into the early hours, making good use of the twenty-four hour daylight. If this is the case then the five of us chip in and take shifts in the ops tower to let the others get some much-needed rest.

Otherwise, there is some time for rest and relaxation. There’s no shortage of things to do – I might head down to the bouldering wall or the gym for a bit of workout, or go and jam with the musical gang in the practice room. If the weather’s good, there’s always the option of a walk round the point or a bit of skiing up in the hills. Or when there is a gale outside, there’s always a film to watch or the bar to prop up…

Eventually, the tiredness kicks in and it’s time for bed again. However, one of the disadvantages of all of this daylight is that, come bedtime, I always look outside and think “it’s sunny and bright – I’ll just go and do a few more jobs before hitting the sack…” – something I’ll usually regret when the next early start comes around.

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