Chapter 9: Midwinter and its work

The Home of the Blizzard by Sir Douglas Mawson (1915)

Chapter 9: Midwinter and its work

With the advent of the fateful Ides of March, winter had practically set in, and work outside had a chequered career. When a few calm hours intervened between two blizzards a general rush was made to continue some long–standing job. Often all that could be done was to clear the field for action, that is, dig away large accumulations of snow. Then the furies would break loose again, and once more we would play the waiting game, meanwhile concerning ourselves with more sedentary occupations.

There was a familiar cry when, for some meteorological reason, the wind would relapse into fierce gusts and then suddenly stop, to be succeeded by intense stillness. ‘Dead calm, up with the wireless masts!’ Every one hastily dashed for his burberrys, and soon a crowd of muffled figures would emerge through the veranda exit, dragging ropes, blocks, picks, and shovels. There was no time to be lost.

So the erection of the wireless masts began in earnest on April 4, continued feverishly till the end of the month, suffered a long period of partial cessation during May and June, was revived in July and August, and, by September 1, two masts, each consisting of a lower–mast and top–mast, had been raised and stayed, while between them stretched the aerial. For four weeks messages were sent out, and many of them were caught by Macquarie Island. Nothing was heard in Adélie Land, although, between certain hours, regular watches were kept at the receiver. The aerial was about sixty–five feet from the ground, and it was resolved to increase its height by erecting the top–gallant masts; but before anything considerable could be done, a terrific gust of wind on October 13 broke three wire–stays, and down came the mast, broken and splintered by the fall. That is a brief resume of the fortunes of the ‘wireless’ during the first year.

During February and March there were various other operations of more immediate importance which prevented concentration of our workers on the erection of the masts. There were many odd jobs to finish about the Hut, the Magnetograph House and Absolute Hut were ‘under way’, the air–tractor sledge had to be efficiently housed, and all these and many other things could be done in weather during which it was out of question to hoist a mast into position. At first we were fastidious and waited for a calm, but later, as we grew more impatient, a top–mast was actually hauled up in a wind of thirty miles per hour, with gusts of higher velocity. Such work would sometimes be interrupted by a more furious outbreak, when all ropes would be secured and everything made as ship–shape as possible.

On March 15 the following note was made: ‘The wind was on the cool side just after breakfast. A few loads of wireless equipment were sledged up to the rocks at the back of the Hut, and by the time several masts were carried to the same place we began to warm to the work. One of Hannam’s coils of frozen rope (one hundred and twenty fathoms) had become kinked and tangled, so we dragged it up the ice–slope, straightened it out and coiled it up again. Several ‘dead men’ to hold the stays were sunk into ice–holes, and, during the afternoon, one mast was dragged into position by a willing crowd. Rocks were sledged to and packed around the ‘dead men’ in the holes to make them compact. Towards sundown snow clouds filled the northern sky and a blizzard sprang up which is now doing sixty miles per hour. We philosophically expect another week cooped up in the Hut’.

It took a long time to establish the twenty good anchorages necessary for the masts. Within a radius of eighty yards from the centre, ice–holes were dug, cairns of heavy boulders were built and rocky prominences dynamited off to secure an efficient holding for the stout ‘strops’ of rope. April 24 was a typical day: ‘We spent the morning fixing up ‘strops’ for the wireless masts. The wind was blowing strongly in fifty– to sixty–mile gusts with drift, but most of the fellows ‘stuck at it’ all day. It was cold work on the hands and feet. Handling picks and shovels predisposes to frost–bite. Several charges of dynamite were fired in one hole wherein a mast will be stepped’.

Each mast, of Oregon timber, was in four sections. The lowest section was ten inches square and tapered upwards to the small royal mast at a prospective height of one hundred and twenty feet. At an early stage it was realised that we could not expect to erect more than three sections. Round the steel caps at each doubling a good deal of fitting had to be done, and Bickerton, in such occupation, spent many hours aloft throughout the year. Fumbling with bulky mitts, handling hammers and spanners, and manipulating nuts and bolts with bare hands, while suspended in a boatswain’s chair in the wind, the man up the mast had a difficult and miserable task. Bickerton was the hero of all such endeavours. Hannam directed the other workers who steadied the stays, cleared or made fast the ropes, pulled and stood by the hauling tackle and so forth.

One day the man on the top–mast dislodged a heavy engineering hammer which he thought secure. No warning was given, as he did not notice that it had fallen. It whizzed down and buried itself in the snow, just grazing the heads of Close and Hodgeman.

The ropes securing the aerial and running through various blocks were in constant danger of chafing during the frequent hurricanes, from their proximity to the mast and stays, or from friction on the sharp edges of the blocks. Unknown to us, this had happened to a strong, new manilla rope by which Murphy was being hauled to the top of the lower–mast. It gave way, and, but for another rope close by, which he seized to break his fall, an accident might have ensued.

Frost–bites were common. There were so many occasions when one had to stand for a long time gripping a rope, pulling or maintaining a steady strain, that fingers would promptly become numb and feet unbearably cold. The usual restorative was to stamp about and beat the chest with the hands – an old sailor’s trick. Attempting to climb to a block on the top–gallant mast one day, McLean had all his fingers frost–bitten at the same time.

In May the weather was atrocious, and in June building the Astronomical Hut and digging ice–shafts on the glacier absorbed a good many hands. In July, despite the enthusiasm and preparation for sledging, much was done. On August 10 the long looked–for top–mast of the southern mast became a reality:

‘We were early astir – about 7 am – while the pink colouration of dawn was stealing over the peaceful Barrier. For once, after months, it was perfectly still. We hurried about making preparations – hauled Bickerton up to the cross–trees and awaited the moment when we should raise the top–mast. We pulled it up half–way and Bickerton affixed a pin in its centre, above which two stays were to be attached. Suddenly, down came the wind in terrific gusts and, after securing the stays, the job had to be given up…. We were just about to have lunch when the wind ceased as suddenly as it had begun. We all sallied out once more, and, this time, completed the job, though for a while the top–mast was in imminent peril of being blown away by a sharp northerly gust.’

Next day the aerial was hoisted in a wind of sixty miles per hour, but the strain was so severe on the block, upwind, that it carried away. Fortunately the insulators of the aerial were entangled by the stays in their fall to ground, otherwise some one may have been hurt, as there were a dozen men almost directly below.

Six days after this accident, August 17, the top–mast halliard of the down–wind mast frayed through, and as a stronger block was to be affixed for the aerial, some one had to climb up to wire it in position. Bickerton improvised a pair of climbing irons, and, after some preliminary practice, ascended in fine style.

Finally, by September 30, the aerial was at such a height as to give hope that long–distance messages might be dispatched. There was a certain amount of suppressed excitement on the evening of that day when the engine started and gradually got up speed in the dynamo. The sharp note of the spark rose in accompanying crescendo and, when it had reached its highest pitch, Hannam struck off a message to the world at large. No response came after several nights of signalling, and, since sledging had usurped every other interest, the novelty soon wore off.

‘Atmospherics’ – discharges of atmospheric electricity – and discharges from the drift–snow were heard in the wireless receiver.

While messages were being sent, induction effects were noted in metallic objects around the Hut. A cook at the stove was the first to discover this phenomenon, and then every one conceived a mania for ‘drawing’ sparks. A rather stimulating experience – the more so as it usually happened unexpectedly and accidentally – was to brush one’s head against one of the numerous coils of flexible metal gas–piping festooned about the place. Sparks immediately jumped the interval with startling effect.

October 13, the day when the mast blew down, was known in wireless circles as Black Sunday. All had worked keenly to make the ‘wireless’ a success, and the final event was considered to be a public misfortune. However, the honours were to be retrieved during the following year.

It fell to the lot of most of the Staff that they developed an interest in terrestrial magnetism. For one thing every man had carried boulders to the great stockade surrounding the Magnetograph House. Then, too, recorders were regularly needed to assist the magnetician in the absolute Hut. There, if the temperature were not too low and the observations not too lengthy, the recorder stepped out into the blizzard with the conviction that he had learned something of value, and, when he sat down to dinner that night, it was with a genial sense of his own altruism. In his diary he would write it all up for his own edification.

It would be on this wise: The Earth’s magnetic force, which is the active agent in maintaining the compass–needle in the magnetic meridian1 at any particular spot, acts, not as is popularly supposed, in a horizontal plane, but at a certain angle of inclination with the Earth’s surface. The nearer the magnetic poles the more nearly vertical does the freely suspended needle become. At the South Magnetic Pole it assumes a vertical position with the south end downwards; at the North Magnetic Pole it stands on its other end. At the intermediate positions near the equator the whole force is exerted, swinging the needle in the horizontal plane, and in such regions ordinary ships’ compasses pivoted to move freely only in a horizontal plane give the greatest satisfaction. On approaching the magnetic poles, compasses become sluggish, for the horizontal deflecting force falls off rapidly. The force, acting in a vertical direction, tending to make the needle dip, correspondingly increases, but is of no value for navigation purposes. However, in the scientific discussion of terrestrial magnetism, both the horizontal and vertical components as well as the absolute value of the total force are important, and the determination of these ‘elements’ is the work of the magnetician. Affecting the average values of the ‘magnetic elements’ at any one spot on the Earth’s surface are regular diurnal oscillations, apparent only by the application of very delicate methods of observation: also there are sudden large irregular movements referred to as magnetic storms; the latter are always specially noticeable when unusually bright auroral phenomena are in progress.

The observations made in the ‘Absolute Hut’, carried out at frequent intervals and on each occasion occupying two men for several hours together, are necessary to obtain standard values as a check upon the graphic record of the self–recording instruments which run day and night in the ‘Magnetograph House’.

But this is another story. Three hours, sitting writing figures in a temperature of –15°F, is no joke. The magnetician is not so badly off, because he is moving about, though he often has to stop and warm his fingers, handling the cold metal.

The Magnetograph House had by far the most formidable name. The Hut, though it symbolised our all in all, sounded very insignificant unless it were repeated with just the right intonation. The Absolute Hut had a superadded dignity. The Hangar, in passing, scarcely seemed to have a right to a capital H. The Transit House, on the and other hand, was the only dangerous rival to the first mentioned. But what’s in a name?

If the Magnetograph House had been advertised, it would have been described as ‘two minutes from the Hut’. This can easily be understood, for the magnetician after leaving home is speedily blown over a few hillocks and sastrugi, and, coming to an ice–flat about one hundred and fifty yards wide, swiftly slides over it, alighting at the snow–packed door of his house. The outside porch is just roomy enough for a man to slip off burberrys and crampons. The latter are full of steel spikes, and being capable of upsetting magnetic equilibrium, are left outside. Walking in soft finnesko, the magnetician opens an inner door, to be at once accosted by darkness, made more intense after the white glare of the snow. His eyes grow accustomed to the blackness, and he gropes his way to a large box almost concealing the feeble glimmer of a lamp. The lamp is the source of the light, projected on to small mirrors attached to the magnetic needles of three variometers. A ray of light is reflected from the mirrors for several feet on to a slit, past which revolves sensitised photographic paper folded on a drum moving by clockwork. The slightest movements of the suspended needles are greatly magnified, and, when the paper is removed and developed in a dark–room, a series of intricate curves denoting declination, horizontal intensity and vertical force, are exquisitely traced. Every day the magnetician attends to the lamp and changes papers; also at prearranged times he tests his ‘scale values’ or takes a ‘quick run’.

To obtain results as free as possible from the local attraction of the rocks in the neighbourhood, Webb resolved to take several sets of observations on the ice–sheet. In order to make the determinations it was necessary to excavate a cave in the glacier. This was done about three–quarters of a mile south of the Hut in working shifts of two men. A fine cavern was hewn out, and there full sets of magnetic observations were taken under ideal conditions.

On sledging journeys the ‘dip’ and declination were both ascertained at many stations, around and up to within less than half a degree of the South Magnetic Pole.

While the wind rushed by at a maddening pace and stars flashed like jewels in a black sky, a glow of pale yellow light overspread the northeast horizon – the aurora. A rim of dark, stratus cloud was often visible below the light which brightened and diffused till it curved as a low arc across the sky. It was eerie to watch the contour of the arc break, die away into a delicate pallor and re-illumine in a travelling riband. Soon a long ray, as from a searchlight, flashed above one end, and then a row of vertical streamers ran out from the arc, probing upwards into the outer darkness. The streamers waxed and waned, died away to be replaced and then faded into the starlight. The arc lost its radiance, divided in patchy fragments, and all was dark once more.

This would be repeated again in a few hours and irregularly throughout the night, but with scenic changes behind the great sombre pall of the sky. northwest, northeast, and southeast it would elusively appear in nebulous blotches, flitting about to end finally in long bright strands in the zenith, crossing the path of the ‘milky way’.

By the observer, who wrote down his exact observations in the meteorological log, this was called a ‘quiet night’.

At times the light was nimble, flinging itself about in rich waves, warming to dazzling yellow–green and rose. These were the nights when ‘curtains’ hung festooned in the heavens, alive, rippling, dancing to the lilt of lightning music. Up from the horizon they would mount, forming a vortex overhead, soundless within the silence of the ether.

A ‘brilliant display’, we would say, and the observer would be kept busy following the track of the evanescent rays.

Powerless, one was in the spell of an all–enfolding wonder. The vast, solitary snow–land, cold–white under the sparkling star–gems; lustrous in the radiance of the southern lights; furrowed beneath the icy sweep of the wind. We had come to probe its mystery, we had hoped to reduce it to terms of science, but there was always the ‘indefinable’ which held aloof, yet riveted our souls.

The aurora was always with us, and almost without exception could be seen on a dark, driftless night. The nature of the aurora polaris has not yet been finally demonstrated, though it is generally agreed to be a discharge of electricity occurring in the upper, more rarefied atmosphere. The luminous phenomena are very similar to those seen when a current of electricity is passed through a vacuum tube.

One receives a distinct impression of nearness, watching the shimmering edges of the ‘curtains’ in the zenith, but all measurements indicate that they never descend nearer than a few miles above the land–surface.

Careful records were taken to establish a relation between magnetic storms and aurorae, and a good deal of evidence was amassed to support the fact that auroral exhibitions correspond with periods of great magnetic disturbance. The displays in Adélie Land were found to be more active than those which occur in higher latitudes in the Ross Sea.

An occupation which helped to introduce variety in our life was the digging of ice–shafts. For the purpose of making observations upon its structure and temperature various excavations were made in the sea–ice, in the ice of the glacier, and in that of the freshwater lakes. The work was always popular. Even a whole day’s labour with a pick and shovel at the bottom of an ice–hole never seemed laborious. It was all so novel.

A calm morning in June, the sky is clear and the north ablaze with the colours of sunrise – or is it sunset? The air is delicious, and a cool waft comes down the glacier. A deep ultramarine, shading up into a soft purple hue, blends in a colour–scheme with the lilac plateau. Two men crunch along in spiked boots over snow mounds and polished sastrugi to the harbour–ice. The sea to the north is glazed with freezing spicules, and over it sweep the petrels – our only living companions of the winter. It is all an inspiration; while hewing out chunks of ice and shovelling them away is the acute pleasure of movement, exercise.

The men measure out an area six feet by three feet, and take a preliminary temperature of the surface–ice by inserting a thermometer in a drilled hole. Then the ice begins to fly, and it is not long before they are down one foot. Nevertheless it would surprise those acquainted only with fresh water ice to find how tough, sticky and intractable is sea–ice. It is always well to work on a definite plan, channelling in various directions, and then removing the intervening lumps by a few rough sweeps of the pick. At a depth of one foot, another temperature is taken, and some large samples of the ice laid by for the examination of their crystalline structure. This is repeated at two feet, and so on, until the whole thickness is pierced to the sea–water beneath. At three feet brine may begin to trickle into the hole, and this increases in amount until the worker is in a puddle. The leakage takes place, if not along cracks, through capillary channels, which are everywhere present in sea–ice.

It is interesting to note the temperature gradually rise during the descent. At the surface the ice is chilled to the air–temperature, say –10°F, and it rises in a steep gradient to approximately 28°F; close to the freezing–point of sea water. The sea–ice in the boat–harbour varied in thickness during the winter between five and seven feet.

In contrast with sea–ice, the ice of a glacier is a marvel of prismatic colour and glassy brilliance. This is more noticeable near the surface when the sun is shining. Deep down in a shaft, or in an ice–cavern, the sapphire reflection gives to the human face quite a ghastly pallor.

During the high winds it was always easy to dispose of the fragments of ice in the earlier stages of sinking a shaft. To be rid of them, all that was necessary was to throw a shovelful vertically upwards towards the lee–side of the hole, the wind then did the rest. Away the chips would scatter, tinkling over the surface of the glacier. Of course, when two men were at work, each took it in turns to go below, and the one above, to keep warm, would impatiently pace up and down. Nevertheless, so cold would he become at times that a heated colloquy would arise between them on the subject of working overtime. When the shaft had attained depth, both were kept busy. The man at the pit’s mouth lowered a bucket on a rope to receive the ice and, in hauling it up, handicapped with clumsy mitts, he had to be careful not to drop it on his companion’s head.

The structural composition of ice is a study in itself. To the cursory glance a piece of glacier–ice appears homogeneous, but when dissected in detail it is found to be formed of many crystalline, interlocking grains, ranging in size from a fraction of an inch to several inches in diameter. A grain–size of a half to one inch is perhaps commonest in Antarctic glacier–ice.

The history of Antarctic glacier–ice commences with the showers of snow that fall upon the plateau. The snow particles may be blown for hundreds of miles before they finally come to rest and consolidate. The consolidated snow is called névé, the grains of which are one–twenty–fifth to one–hundredth of an inch in diameter, and, en masse, present a dazzling white appearance on account of the air spaces which occupy one–third to one–half of the whole. In time, under the influence of a heavy load of accumulated layers of névé, the grains run together and the air spaces are eliminated. The final result is clear, transparent ice, of a more or less sapphire–blue colour when seen in large blocks. It contains only occasional air–bubbles, and the size of the grains is much increased.

Lake–ice, freezing from the surface downwards, is built up of long parallel prisms, like the cells of a honey–comb on a large scale. In a lakelet near the Hut this was beautifully demonstrated. In some places cracks and fissures filled with snow–dust traversed the body of the ice, and in other places long strings of beaded air–bubbles had become entangled in the process of freezing. To lie down on the clear surface and gaze ‘through the looking–glass’ to the rocky bottom, twenty feet below, was a glimpse into ‘Wonderland’.

In the case of sea–ice, the simple prismatic structure is complicated owing to the presence of saline matter dissolved in the sea water. The saline tracts between the prisms produce a milky or opalescent appearance. The prisms are of fresh water ice, for in freezing the brine is rejected and forced to occupy the interstices of the prisms. Water of good drinking quality can be obtained by allowing sea water ice to thaw partially. The brine, of lower freezing–point, flows away, leaving only fresh water ice behind. In this way blocks of sea–ice exposed to the sun’s rays are relieved of their salty constituents, and crumble into pellucid gravel when disturbed.

A popular subject commanding general interest, apart from the devoted attention of specialists, was zoological collecting. Seals and birds were made the prey of every one, and dredging through the sea–ice in winter and spring was always a possible diversion.

It was a splendid sight to watch the birds sailing in the high winds of Adélie Land. In winds of fifty to seventy miles per hour, when with good crampons one had to stagger warily along the ice–foot, the snow petrels and Antarctic petrels were in their element. Wheeling, swinging, sinking, planing and soaring, they were radiant with life – the wild spirits of the tempest. Even in moderate drift, when through swirling snow the vistas of sea whitened under the flail of the wind, one suddenly caught the silver flash of wings and a snow petrel glided past.

But most memorable of all were certain winter mornings of unexpected calm, when ruddy clouds tessellated the northern sky and were mirrored in the freezing sea. Then the petrels would be en fête, flying over from the east following the line of the Barrier, winding round the icy coves, darting across the jutting points and ever onward in their long migration. In the summer they flew for weeks from the west – a never–ending string of snow, silver–grey and Antarctic petrels, and Cape pigeons. The silver–grey petrels and Cape pigeons were only abroad during that season and were accompanied by skua gulls, giant petrels, Wilson petrels, and penguins. The penguins remained in Adélie Land for the longest period – almost six months, the skua gulls and giant petrels for five months, and the rest for a shorter period – the tolerable season of midsummer.

Birds that haunt the wide oceans all make use of the soaring principle in flight, some much more than others. The beautiful sliding sweep of the albatross is the most familiar example. With wings outspread, it is a miniature aeroplane requiring no engines, for the wind itself supplies the power. A slight movement of the tail–feathers and wing–tips controls its balance with nice precision. Birds employing this method of flight find their home in the zone of continuous steady winds which blow across the broad wastes of the southern seas.

Many petrels on the wing were shot during the winter. Laseron, who prepared the skins of our Adélie Land collection, determined, in the case of a number of specimens, the ratio of weight to horizontal area exposed to the wind. This subject is one which has lately exercised the curiosity of aviators. The ratios are those evolved by nature, and, as such, should be well-nigh perfect. Below is appended a table of the results obtained.

Weight of certain Antarctic birds in relation to wing areas (Stated in pounds per square foot of wing surface)
Each is the mean of several determinations by Laseron
Giant petrel 3.5
Albatross 2.4
Antarctic petrel 2.1
Skua gull 1.6
Snow petrel 1.1
Wilson petrel 0.6
Values from a book of reference quoted for comparison
Bat 0.1
Sparrow 0.4
Wild goose 1.7

During the winter, for a long period, no seals ventured ashore, though a few were seen swimming in the bay. The force of the wind was so formidable that even a heavy seal, exposed in the open, broadside–on, would be literally blown into the water. This fact was actually observed out on the harbour–ice. A Weddell seal made twelve attempts to land on a low projecting shelf – an easy feat under ordinary circumstances. The wind was in the region of eighty–five miles per hour, and every time the clumsy, ponderous creature secured its first hold, back it would be tumbled. Once it managed to raise itself on to the flat surface, and, after a breathing spell, commenced to shuffle towards the shelter of some pinnacles on one side of the harbour. Immediately its broad flank was turned to the wind it was rolled over, hung for a few seconds on the brink, and then splashed into the sea. On the other hand, during the spring, a few more ambitious seals won their way ashore in high winds; but they did not remain long in the piercing cold, moving uneasily from place to place in search of protecting hummocks and finally taking to the water in despair. Often a few hours of calm weather was the signal for half a dozen animals to land. The wind sooner or later sprang up and drove them back to their warmer element.

Under the generic name, seal, are included the true or hair seals and the sea–bears or fur seals. Of these the fur seals are sub–polar in distribution, inhabiting the cold temperate waters of both hemispheres, but never living amongst the polar ice. The southern coast of Australia and the subantarctic islands were their favourite haunts, but the ruthless slaughter of the early days practically exterminated them. From Macquarie Island, for example, several hundred thousand skins were taken in a few years, and of late not a single specimen has been seen.

Closely related to the fur seals are the much larger animals popularly known as sea–lions. These still exist in great numbers in south temperate waters. Both are distinguished from the hair seals by one obvious characteristic: their method of propulsion on land is by a ‘lolloping’ motion, in which the front and hind flippers are used alternately. The hair seals move by a caterpillar–like shuffle, making little or no use of their flippers; and so, the terminal parts of their flippers are not bent outwards as they are in the fur seals and sea–lions.

Of the hair seals there are five varieties to be recognized in the far South. The Weddell seals, with their mottled–grey coats, are the commonest. They haunt the coasts of Antarctica and are seldom found at any distance from them. Large specimens of this species reach nine and a half feet in length.

The crab–eater seal, a smaller animal, lives mostly on the pack–ice. Lying on a piece of floe in the sunshine it has a glistening, silver–grey skin – another distinguishing mark being its small, handsome head and short, thin neck. Small crustaceans form its principal food.

The Ross seal, another inhabitant of the pack–ice, is short and bulky, varying from a pale yellowish–green on the under side to a dark greenish–brown on the back. Its neck is ample and bloated, and when distended in excitement reminds one of a pouter–pigeon. This rare seal appears to subsist mainly on squid and jelly–fish.

The sea–leopard, the only predacious member of the seal family, has an elongated agile body and a large head with massive jaws. In general it has a mottled skin, darker towards the back. It lives on fish, penguins and seals. Early in April, Hurley and McLean were the first to obtain proof that the sea–leopard preyed on other seals. Among the broken floe–ice close beneath the ice–cliffs to the west of Winter Quarters, the wind was driving the dead body of a Weddell seal which swept past them, a few yards distant, to the open water. Then it was that a sea–leopard was observed tearing off and swallowing great pieces of flesh and blubber from the carcase.

The last variety of hair seal, the sea elephant, varies considerably from the preceding. Reference has already been made to the species earlier in the narrative. The habitat of these monstrous animals ranges over the cold, south-temperate seas; sea elephants are but occasional visitors to the ice–bound regions. Although they have been exterminated in many other places, one of their most populous resorts at the present day is Macquarie Island.

In the case of all the hair seals a layer of blubber several inches in thickness invests the body beneath the skin and acts as a conserver of warmth. They are largely of value for the oil produced by rendering down the blubber. The pelts are used for leather.

The operation of skinning seals for specimens, in low temperatures and in the inevitable wind, was never unduly protracted. We were satisfied merely to strip off the skin, leaving much blubber still adhering to it. In this rough condition it was taken into the work–room of the Hut to be cleaned. The blubber froze, and then had the consistency of hard soap and was readily severed from the pelt. It was found that there exuded amongst the frozen blubber a thin oil which remained liquid when collected and exposed to low temperatures. This oil was used to lubricate the anemometer and other instruments exposed outside.

The main part of the biological work lay in the marine collections. Hunter with the small hand–dredge brought up abundant samples of life from depths ranging to fifty fathoms. In water shallower than ten fathoms the variety of specimens was not great, including seaweeds up to eighteen or more feet in length, a couple of forms of starfish, various small mollusca, two or three varieties of fish, several sea–spiders, hydroids and lace corals, and, in great profusion, worms and small crustaceans. In deeper waters the life became much richer, so that examples of almost every known class of marine animals were represented.

Early in June the sea bottom in depths less than ten fathoms had become so coated with ice that dredging in shallow water was suspended.

Floating or swimming freely were examples of pteropods, worms, crustaceans, ostracods, and jelly–fish. These were easily taken in the hand–net.

In those regions where ice and water are intermingled, the temperature of the water varies very slightly in summer and winter, remaining approximately at freezing–point. In summer the tendency to heating is neutralised by a solution of some of the ice, and in winter the cold is absorbed in the production of a surface layer of ice. This constancy of the sea’s temperature is favourable to organic life. On land there is a wide range in temperature, and only the meagre mosses and lichens, and the forms of insect life which live among them can exist, because they have developed the capacity of suspending animation during the winter. The fresh–water lakelets were found to be inhabited by low forms of life, mainly microscopic. Among these were diatoms, algae, protozoa, rotifera, and bacteria.

The last–named were investigated by McLean and were found to be manifold in distribution. Besides those from the intestines of animals and birds, cultures were successfully made from the following natural sources: lichen soil, moss soil, morainic mud, guano, ice and snow. The results may open some new problems in bacteriology.

Of recent years much attention has been given to the study of parasites – parasitology. Parasites may be external, on the skin; internal, in the alimentary canal; or resident, in the corpuscles of the blood. In tropical countries, where there is great promiscuity of life, one is led to expect their almost universal presence. But in polar regions, where infection and intimate co–habitation for long periods are not the rule, while the climate is not favourable to organic existence, one would be surprised to find them in any great number. The fact remains that internal parasites were found in the intestine of every animal and fish examined, and in all the birds except the Wilson petrel. External parasites were present on every species of bird and seal, though individuals were often free of them. This was so in the case of the Adélie penguins. It is a demonstration of the protective warmth of the feathers that Emperor penguins may harbour insect parasites in great numbers. It is only less wonderful than the fact that they are able to rear their young during the Antarctic winter. A large number of blood–slides were prepared and stained for examination for blood–parasites.

Searching for ‘fleas’ amongst the feathers of birds and the hair of seals, or examining the viscera for ‘worms’ is neither of them a pleasant occupation. To be really successful, the enthusiasm of the specialist is necessary. Hunter allowed no opportunities to pass and secured a fine collection of parasites.

Amongst other work, McLean carried out monthly observations on six men, determining the colour–index and haemoglobin value of their blood over a period of ten months. The results showed a distinct and upward rise above the normal.

Among societies privileged to see the daily paper and to whom diversity and change are as the breath of life, the weather is apt to be tabooed as a subject of conversation. But even the most versatile may suddenly find themselves stripped of ideas, ignominiously reduced to the obvious topic. To us, instead of being a mere prelude to more serious matters, or the last resort of a feeble intellect, it was the all–engrossing theme. The man with the latest hare–brained theory of the causation of the wind was accorded a full hearing. The lightning calculator who estimated the annual tonnage of drift–snow sweeping off Adélie Land was received as a futurist and thinker. Discussion was always free, and the subject was never thrashed out. Evidence on the great topic accumulated day by day and month by month; yet there was no one without an innate hope that winter would bring calm weather or that spring–time, at least, must be propitious.

Meanwhile the meteorologist accepted things as he found them, supplied the daily facts of wind–mileage and direction, amount of drift, temperature and so forth, which were immediately seized by more vivacious minds and made the basis of daring speculations.

The daily facts were increased by the construction of a new instrument known as the puffometer. It was entirely a home–made contrivance, designed to measure the speed of heavy gusts of wind. A small aluminium sphere was arranged to blow out at the end of a light cord exerting tension on a calibrated spring. The pull was transferred to a lever carrying a pencil, which travelled across a disk of carbonised paper. The disk, moving by clockwork, made a complete revolution every hour. The recording parts of the instrument were enclosed in a snow–proof box in which there was a small aperture on the leeward side, through which ran the cord attachment of the sphere. This may give a rough idea of the apparatus employed to measure the momentary velocity of the cyclonic gusts. The idea is not an original one, having been previously applied for use on kites.

It was not always possible to use the puffometer in the strongest gusts because these were often transient, occurring unexpectedly or during the night; while it took a little time to get the instrument into running order. Even in daylight, with the landscape clear of drift, it was a time–absorbing and difficult task to secure a record.

Two men start from the Hut with iron crampons and a full complement of clothes and mitts. Outside they find themselves in a rushing torrent of air, pulsating with mighty gust–waves. Lowered from the estate of upright manhood, they humbly crawl, or make a series of crouching sprints between the gusts. Over the scattered boulders to the east of the Hut, across a patch of polished snow they push to the first low ridge, and there they stop for breath. Up on the side of ‘Annie Hill’, in the local phrase, the tide sweeps by with fiendish strength, and among the jagged rocks the man clutching the puffometer–box has a few desperate falls. At last both clamber slowly to an eminence where a long steel pipe has been erected. To the top of this the puffometer is hauled by means of a pulley and line. At the same time the aluminium sphere is released, and out it floats in the wind tugging at the spring.

The puffometer was left out for an hour at a time, and separate gusts up to one hundred and fifty and one hundred and eighty miles per hour were commonly indicated. I remember the final fate of this invention. While helping to mount it one day, the wind picked me up clear of the ground and dashed myself and the instrument on some rocks several yards away. The latter was badly damaged, but thick clothing saved me from serious injury.

Wind velocity and wind direction charts for midwinter day

The wind velocity and wind direction charts for midwinter day, when the steady south-by-east gale was broken after noon by a welcome lull – the wind veering the while all round the compass

The average velocity for the day 66.9 miles per hour, and the maximum of the average hourly velocities, ninety–six miles.

The steadiness of the temperature was a subject for debate. The stronger the wind blew, the less variation did the thermometer show. Over a period of several days there might be a range of only four or five°. Ordinarily, this might be expected of an insular climate, but in our case it depended upon the fact that the wind remained steady from the interior of the vast frigid continent. The air which flowed over the Hut had all passed through the same temperature–cycle. The atmosphere of the interior, where the plateau stood at an elevation of, say, eight thousand feet, might have a temperature –45°F. As the air flowed northwards over Adélie Land to the sea, it would rise slowly in temperature owing to the increased barometric pressure consequent on the descending gradient of the plateau. At sea–level the temperature of the river of air would be, approximately, –20°F.

Such a rise in temperature due to compression is a well–known phenomenon, referred to as the Foehn effect.

The compression of the atmosphere during the gusts affected the air temperature so considerably that, coincident with their passage, the mercury column could often be seen rising and falling through several degrees. The uniform conditions experienced during steady high winds were not only expressed by the slight variation in the temperature, but often in a remarkably even barometric curve. Thus on July 11 the wind–velocity for twenty–four hours was, throughout, seventy miles per hour; the temperature remaining within a few degrees of –21°F, and the barometric curve did not show as much range as one–twentieth of an inch.

In attending to the many instruments and in gathering the voluminous meteorological data, Madigan had his hands very full. Throughout two years he carried on the work capably and thoroughly. It was difficult to keep the instruments free from the penetrating snow and in good running order. The Robinson anemometer was perhaps the greatest source of worry. Repairs and readjustments were unavoidable, as the instrument was constantly working at high pressure. In order that these might be carried out efficiently, the whole apparatus had to be carried down to the Hut. Here, Bickerton and Correll were continually in consultation with the meteorologist on the latest breakdown. Cups were blown off several times, and one was lost and replaced with difficulty. Most aggravating of all was a habit the clocks developed of stopping during the colder spells. The old–fashioned method of boiling them was found of assistance, but it was discovered that the best treatment was to put them through successive baths of benzene and alcohol.

The most chronic sufferer throughout the vicissitudes of temperature was the clock belonging to Bage’s tide–gauge. Every sleeper in the Hut who was sensitive to ticking knew and reviled that clock. So often was it subjected to warm, curative treatment in various resting–places that it was hunted from pillar to post. A radical operation by Correll – the insertion of an extra spring – became necessary at last. Correll, when not engaged designing electroscopes, improving sledge–meters and perfecting theodolites, was something of a specialist in clocks. His advice on the subject of refractory time–pieces was freely asked and cheerfully given. By perseverance and unlimited patience, the tide–gauge down on the harbour–ice was induced to supply a good series of unbroken records.

A line drawing of the tide gauge

The tide gauge

The rise and fall of the tide is coincident with the movements of a perpendicular wire to which the float is attached. The wheel is revolved, and through wire connections (indicated above) displaces vertically the pen. This traces a record on paper folded on the drum which is driven by clockwork. In all weathers, the box was enveloped in drift–proof canvas.

Antarctica is a world of colour, brilliant and intensely pure. The chaste whiteness of the snow and the velvet blackness of the rocks belong to days of snowy nimbus enshrouding the horizon. When the sky has broken into cloudlets of fleece, their edges are painted pale orange, fading or richly glowing if the sun is low. In the high sun they are rainbow–rimmed.

The clouds have opened into rifts and the sun is setting in the northwest. The widening spaces in the zenith are azure, and low in the north they are emerald. Scenic changes are swift. Above the mounting plateau a lofty arch of clear sky has risen, flanked by roseate clouds. Far down in the south it is tinged with indigo and ultramarine, washed with royal purple paling onwards into cold violet and greyish–blue.

Soon the north is unveiled. The liquid globe of sun has departed, but his glory still remains. Down from the zenith his colours descend through greenish–blue, yellowish–green, straw–yellow, light terra–cotta to a diffuse brick–red; each reflected in the dull sheen of freezing sea. Out on the infinite horizon float icebergs in a mirage of mobile gold. The Barrier, curving to east and west, is a wall of delicate pink overlaid with a wondrous mauve – the rising plateau. A cold picture – yet it awakens the throb of inborn divinity.

Despite contrary predictions, there were some enjoyable days in June. Occupation had to be strenuous, making the blood run hot, otherwise the wind was apt to be chill. So the Transit House was founded, and there were many volunteers to assist Bage in carrying the tons of stones which formed its permanent base. The nearest large collection of boulders was twenty yards away, on the edge of a moraine, but these after a while became exhausted. Plenty of rocks actually showed above the surface, but the majority were frozen–in, and, when of suitable size, could only be moved by a heavy crowbar. Some of the men, therefore, dislodged the rocks, while others carried them.

When Bage was wondering how long the supply would last, Ninnis and Mertz came to the rescue with sledges and dog–teams. Boxes were piled on to the sledges and away the teams went, careering across the ice–flat towards the Magnetograph House close to which there were many heaps of stones, wind–swept and easily displaced. Soon a regular service was plying to the foundations, and, at the same time, the dogs were being trained. This occupation was continued, weather permitting, for several weeks before midwinter’s day. Thus the drivers gained experience, while the animals, with a wholesome dread of the whip, became more responsive to commands. Eagerly the huskies strained at their traces with excited yelps. The heavily laden sledges would break out and start off with increasing speed over the rough ice. The drivers, running at full speed, jumped on the racing loads – Mertz in the lead shouting some quaint yodel song; Ninnis, perhaps, just behind upbraiding a laggard dog.

Midwinter’s day! For once, the weather rose to the occasion and calmed during the few hours of the twilight–day. It was a jovial occasion, and we celebrated it with the uproarious delight of a community of eighteen young men unfettered by small conventions. The sun was returning, and we were glad of it. Already we were dreaming of spring and sledging, summer and sledging, the ship and home. It was the turn of the tide, and the future seemed to be sketched in firm, sure outline. While the rest explored all the ice–caves and the whole extent of our small rocky ‘selection’, Hannam and Bickerton shouldered the domestic responsibilities. Their menu du diner to us was a marvel of gorgeous delicacies. After the toasts and speeches came a musical and dramatic programme, punctuated by choice gramophone records and rowdy student choruses. The washing–up was completed by all hands at midnight. Outside, the wind was not to be outdone; it surpassed itself with an unusual burst of ninety–five miles per hour.

Midwinter’s day menu at the Main Base, Adélie Land, 1912

Midwinter’s day menu at the Main Base, Adélie Land, 1912

  1. The magnetic meridian is the straight line joining the North and South Magnetic Poles and passing through the spot in question.

This version of Home of the Blizzard has been edited and published by the Australian Antarctic Division.