A brush with history

Plumber relieving residual pressure from a hydrogen cylinder
Plumber Cal Y relieving residual pressure from the recovered Platcha hydrogen cylinder
The original Platcha Hut as it is today, with the edge of the ice plateau in the backgroundTwo hand-drawn diagrams of the katabatic winds observed at Platcha copied from the 1961 Platcha Logbook, top by Victor Jabs and bottom by Nils LeidA summer photograph of the new Platcha hut, with the old hut in the right background

11 August 2003

A rusted, old gas cylinder was retrieved last week from a beach at the head of Long Fjord, 24 km east of Davis Station. It was removed by Davis wintering expeditioners and will be returned to Australia for proper disposal.

Removal from Antarctica of such pieces of rubbish is not unusual. Nowadays, nothing apart from treated sewage and incinerator gases, is allowed to escape into the environment. However, this incident was interesting in providing a reminder of Antarctic events more than forty years ago.

The cylinder was of an unfamiliar kind, clearly quite old. What did it contain? Was it pressurised and hazardous to move? With some difficulty it was vented of its residual contents, which analysis showed to be hydrogen.

Today hydrogen is used for only one thing at Davis, to fill meteorological balloons to carry instruments high into the atmosphere. That only takes place at the station itself. Why was hydrogen being used in that remote place, and how long ago? Answers were found in the carbon-copied pages of old logbooks still held at Davis.

The site where the cylinder was recovered was only a kilometre from the oldest field hut in the Vestfold Hills. Called Platcha, supposedly an abbreviation of 'Plateau Chateau', the hut is located only a few metres from the edge of the great ice plateau that covers most of Antarctica. Platcha was established in 1961 as a remote weather station by Norwegian-born meteorologist Nils Lied.

Lied was one of the original expeditioners who first established permanent Australian stations in Antarctica. He spent 1951 at Heard Island and much of 1956 at Mawson before joining the founding Davis wintering expedition in 1957. After exploring with dog teams around the Vestfold Hills, Lied proposed that a remote weather station should be established near the edge of the ice plateau to study katabatic winds. Four years later he achieved his ambition. The station log for 28 April 1961 noted:

Today may be regarded as one of the milestones at Davis for 1961, for at 0845 hours the first sledging trip was under way. The departure was well organised and controlled both for the party and the dogs. Under overcast but calm conditions, Mal, Nils and Frank started off across the sea ice towards Long Fjord where a site will be selected for the remote weather station.

Lied continued the story:

A site was located, which met all our requirements; reasonable access for the station Ferguson tractor across the tide-crack, good exposure for the screen instruments, the station directly in the katabatic wind stream, easy access to the ice-cap, and a fine position for pilot balloon flights.

Bad weather delayed departure from Davis of the tractor train, but the 'all clear' was given by the advance party on May 16th, and the first stage of establishing our remote station began. The tractor towing the caravan, and the heavily laden Nansen dog-sledge, were met just before dark. Heavy snow-drifts hindered progress, finally bogging the train down. In the morning all gear was unloaded from the caravan, and the Nansen sledge detached.

After considerable difficulties the tractor was started, accumulated drifts removed, and while Lied drove the tractor at full throttle, in bottom gear, and the rest of the party shovelled, pushed and heaved, the caravan was finally hauled out from the drift area and onto smooth ice.

A path had been cleared across the tide-crack in preparation for the following day. As expected the temperature dropped sharply overnight, and froze the slushy tide-crack solid. All snow had been removed in anticipation of this, and we now had a hard-frozen path across to the solid ice-slope leading up to the station site. Thus, on the third day after leaving Davis, the caravan, painted a bright orange, lent a spot of colour to the beautiful but stark surroundings of rock and ice.

The record for 30 May includes the first mention of hydrogen cylinders, as well as the first encounter with the katabatic wind.

Completed guys on spare caravan, and carried a hydrogen bottle up to the pilot balloon shelter, strapped to a rucksack – rather heavy work up a very steep, rocky slope. Then roped up and walked up onto the ice-cap in search of the katabatic wind. After walking upslope in calm conditions for about ¼ mile, we suddenly walked into the down-slope wind, with its line of dissipation so well defined that we could determine it to within a few yards.

The remote station was manned by two men at a time, with a changeover of personnel every 2–4 weeks. After Lied and his companion were relieved by two others they returned to Davis, and he wrote:

We made record time back to base, and arrived just before dark. Both were badly in need of a bath and clean clothes, myself especially after a total of 27 days in the field. After many delays and frustrations our station was on the map, thanks to the cooperation of everyone at Davis. Let us hope that our work will prove valuable, and that something more may possibly be added to our store of knowledge.

Interesting and novel observations were made over the next year on the nature of the katabatic wind, especially as it dissipated on reaching the edge of the ice plateau just above Platcha. The suddenness of the onset of the wind particularly impressed the observers, especially when they walked up on to the ice plateau to find its edge.

Platcha was closed down as a permanently staffed weather station in January 1962. Despite hopes for its continuation, this was prevented in part by an accident when an expeditioner suffered a fall down a steep snow cliff and needed weeks of observation and treatment.

Today two huts stand at Platcha. The smaller of the two is the original one erected by Lied and others in 1961, restored in 1988. The larger of the present huts was erected in 1982.