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Jeremy Rutherford on the ice. Photo: Supplied
Jeremy Rutherford on the ice. Photo: Supplied

ScienceMarch 3, 2019

Nothing is ever easy at an Antarctic weather station

Jeremy Rutherford on the ice. Photo: Supplied
Jeremy Rutherford on the ice. Photo: Supplied

Everyone knows it’s cold in Antarctica but knowing exactly how cold it is the job of Jeremy Rutherford, an environmental technician for NIWA who has just returned from nearly three weeks in Antarctica giving the weather stations their annual check-up.

Every morning at Scott Base, someone heads outdoors to do the “daily obs” – the official check of what the weather’s doing.

This crucial 9am scientific ritual has happened daily since 1957, when Sir Edmund Hillary’s team first started recording weather conditions on the ice.

In fact, the methodology hasn’t changed either in that someone has to read a thermometer as well as record the barometric pressure, cloud cover and visibility. Of course, we run our modern high resolution electronic weather station alongside the manual one but it’s verified by the daily observations.

Manual weather recordings that span such a long period of time provide incredibly valuable data for scientists and is a service that is gradually disappearing across New Zealand.

We operate three long term climate stations in Antarctica – the manual one and two electronic stations. One of electronic stations is at Arrival Heights, about six kilometres from Scott Base and in a special area that protects the validity of the atmospheric measurements made there.

Once a year the sensors on the stations need servicing, calibrating and a thorough check up to ensure they can stand up to another 12 months of the extreme environment.

The weather governs everything at Scott Base and our data is used to schedule flights, plan transport operations and manage people’s safety. Once you get there, you undertake extensive training to learn to cope with the conditions and how to manage yourself in the environment.

You’ve got to plan what you’re going to do and when you’re going to do it, so you’re not wearing all your outside gear inside, because you get hot pretty quick. And once you’ve got your gear on you can’t really come inside so you’ve got to commit to being outside for a while.

When the wind is blowing you need a lot of clothing. If it’s about -10ᵒC it’s actually quite pleasant to be outside. But if it’s blowing and gets down to -20ᵒC it’s not a comfortable temperature.

Your hands get so cold, so quickly – even inside gloves.

We are provided with a lot of good kit but you’ve really got to make sure you’re covered up. You’ve got to wear a buff over your face because if you stand out in the wind with any skin exposed you’ll get frost bite super quick.

As soon as you breathe your sunglasses fog up, but you’ve got to leave them on or you’ll get snow blindness and that’s no fun. There’s no such thing as a simple task and you can’t put anything down or it disappears in the wind.

It sounds so obvious but the cold takes a lot of managing. In New Zealand we’d walk around with a clipboard taking notes but you can’t do that with big gloves on.

Servicing a weather station is quite straightforward though. In New Zealand it would take about half a day but in Antarctica I allocate a full day for each one.

We are calibrating the sensors for extremes that don’t exist back in New Zealand – these ones need to operate in temperatures that may go down to -50ᵒC.

This year we installed an automatic precipitation gauge. As technology has changed it has enabled us to measure mixed precipitation – liquid or solid – so now we’ve got a reasonable show of doing that at Scott Base. The gauge has a heater in it so it dissolves the ice or snow to measure it.

We work quite closely with the Scott Base electrician because anything extra we want to do like that  potentially affects the power loading.

Antarctica is the most incredible place you’ve ever seen – it’s unbelievable. You get off the plane and look across at the Trans Antarctic Mountains and you have no idea how far away they are. Everything is huge and vast.

You can feel pretty insignificant. You stand beside the big aircraft that go down there and feel tiny, but later you’ll watch the planes coming into the runway and they look like tiny dots.

I’ve been there four times now. It’s a privilege because Scott Base doesn’t host people for fun – you’ve got to have a reason to go. I feel a lot of pride in contributing to Sir Ed’s legacy.

There are more trips to come. We will have to start planning to relocate some of our equipment soon because Scott Base is in the early stages of a big redevelopment project. The site of the new buildings will likely impinge on our climate record so we are about to start working with Antarctica NZ in planning for next season when we would like to relocate the wind mast.

To do that we need to get the big concrete footings on the ship that’s going down there in time for the next season and then we’ll have to time our trip to get there after the ship has arrived and it’s been unloaded.

You can’t pour concrete in Antarctica because it freezes before it’s gone solid so everything has to be precast.

If we miss that narrow window we’ll have to wait another year before we get another shot at it.

That’s why you need to make the most of the time you are there. You’re always dealing with flight delays which turned into four extra days for me this time. It meant I had a bit more time to resolve a fault that needed tending to. I also got in a bit of recreation – whale watching and ice climbing inside a crevasse. That was pretty stunning.

Also McMurdo – the big US station – isn’t very far away and has a coffee house and some good bars.

Keep going!