A weekend of contrasts

A snowy day on station
A snowy day on station (Photo: D Ross)
Looking back from the Nodwell vehicle across the canelineExpeditioners carrying stores from vehicle into Robbos HutMeeting some penguins beside a glittering sea

15th November 2004

Jeremy Smith, Station Leader

The weather at Casey is notorious for being abruptly changeable, especially compared to my former station Davis where it is relatively benign. Last week it proved its point. The first days of the week saw light winds, and some high cloud but mostly sunshine, hour after hour of it, because with only a little over a month to go to midsummer, there is now really no longer any night, just four hours of dusk between sunset and sunrise.

Then it all changed. Thursday was still calm, but became overcast, and on Friday the winds struck. At first they were clear, but by late morning it was snowing, providing the howling gale with plenty of snow dust to whirl down Casey main street for the rest of the day and night.

Blizzard to meteorologists is a technical term. The temperature must be below freezing point, winds at least at gale force (minimum 34 km/h), with visibility down to less than 100 metres, all for at least an hour. Casey achieves this condition almost weekly, and on this occasion it maintained it for the whole afternoon, through the night and into next morning. At first, getting to my office from the 'Red Shed' where we live was easy: the wind was flat on my back and all I needed to do was to put one foot in front of the other to be carried along in the right direction.

Coming back was a bit different, fighting into the teeth of the gale, some of the teeth turning out to be fragments of flying ice. Even the fine powdery snow, which got into every clothing gap, also stung any uncovered skin, and until I went to fetch my goggles and balaclava (having been relying only on sunglasses and a beanie) my face chilled and hurt after less than a minute. Wiping my face clear of moisture after I struggled into the Red Shed cold porch after one trip, I found a curved sheet of ice on my glove that was a perfect mould of the end of my nose!

The winds continued through Saturday, but by then they had largely run out of loose snow to blow. They were remarkably gusty, and blew suddenly from any direction between southwest and northeast. When I sat down to breakfast, a glance at the weather indicator showed the wind had dropped to a mere 10 knots, but half a cup of coffee later it suddenly gusted to 72 knots! By now the snow and ice-covered ground was becoming dangerously polished by the wind, sweeping people off their feet, and instead of dense clouds of snow, fragments of ice and small stones were flying about.

Saturday afternoon is the time for station duties. Everyone not in the field and without regular duties in the kitchen, meteorology office or communications room, is rostered on to some community task, be it rubbish collection, floor cleaning, potato peeling, fire team training, field equipment maintenance, or whatever. Today none of the outdoor jobs could be done; rubbish stayed, and further empty fuel drums for its storage were not cut open. But an additional indoor duty was undertaken with enthusiasm.

Preparations for party time! This community of 61 people is an unexpected, accidental one, in that we have 25 people here only in transit, who will soon be moved on to Davis and Mawson. They await their transport, the two CASA-212 aircraft that are newly purchased and on the verge of their maiden flights from Hobart to Casey. It was decided that the theme would be ‘C for Casey’, and most people dressed for the occasion. A wonderful array of characters arrived including two clowns, two convicts, a cow girl, a cow, a climber, a cloud, cute and cuddly, a cross-dresser, a council worker, Caesar, a centurion, Christ, a cocaine dealer and two items of cargo. It was a fine occasion, with twenty different sorts of finger food, dancing for (mostly) the younger expeditioners into the wee and not-so-wee hours, plenty of home-brewed beer, and a good time had by all.

And as the evening wore on, behind the makeshift blackout shades of aluminium foil and black polythene, the weather was changing again. By midnight it had cleared. As we wended our ways to bed, a golden glow filtered through from an unclouded sun not too far below the southern horizon. And Sunday was brilliant. The temperature remained below freezing but not by much, the wind was a mere zephyr, and the sun shone brilliantly.

Many took advantage of the situation. Some took the rubbish to the incinerator and recycling containers. One group of six planned to depot food and skis at a field hut in preparation for a field training trip this week. They arranged to take the Nodwell, a beast of a machine of Canadian construction (I am told) that propels itself on wide tracks, and includes a tray back featuring a small crane. At the last minute one of them dropped out, and I was asked if I wanted to join them.

Actually I had been looking forward to a little after-lunch snooze, but a drive through Antarctica in the sunshine is not to be turned down out of hand. It took me just a few minutes to make arrangements: call my deputy to tell him he was in charge for a few hours, inform the duty radio operator, appropriately notate the fire board, grab my survival pack and a few bits of clothing, and climb aboard.

Casey is built on a small rocky peninsula, one of five such peninsulas which, with a scatter of offshore islands, makes up the Windmill Islands region. It covers about 35 km of the Budd Coast, stretching from the Swain Islands, about 10 km north of Casey, to the Browning Peninsula, some 25 km to the south. Inland of this coastal strip lies the Antarctic plateau, that vast ice sheet extending across the entire continent, completely burying it except for a few small rocky places around the margin like the Windmill Islands.

We drove on to the edge of the plateau at Penguin Pass, a mere 300 metres from the last building. From then on, our way was on ice. It was marked by a caneline, a series of bamboo canes, and here and there old fuel drums running across parts of the icesheet known from long experience to remain crevasse-free. In bright sunshine it was hardly a challenge, but in blizzard you have to creep along blindly using radar to pick up the canes ahead (thoughtfully with beer cans threaded on to them as reflectors), or following a satellite-provided track by using the GPS system.

The surface was streaked by hard, wind-sculpted snow ridges, here up to 20 cm or so high but elsewhere up to more than a metre. These are known as sastrugi. As we moved inland, up the imperceptibly convex slope, behind us the snow-streaked rocks of the Windmills began to slip beneath the white ice horizon. Soon we turned right down another caneline, and began to drop down to Robinson’s Ridge, a small peninsula jutting into the newly blue sea, where Robbo’s Hut marked our destination. Driving cautiously over wind-polished clear ice on a steeper section, we then skirted a basin that in a few weeks will be full of treacherous slush, and reached the little red hut overlooking Odbert and Ardery Islands, bird reserves unapproachable without a permit. It took only a few minutes to unload and transfer our load, and to bury the frozen food in a small snow drift where it would stay fresh.

Then we went for a stroll. Some of us went sliding on patches of shiny, sloping ice, others dropped down towards the water where they met a band of Adélie penguins, some of which came up to them in their usual curiosity (we are not permitted to go closer than 15 metres to any wildlife, but penguins can’t read and they regularly breach these environmental guidelines: all you need do is sit down and often they hurry across to see you).

I climbed a hill to get an overview of the area, to see more clearly the extent of the ice blow-out, and also unexpectedly to find quite a wealth of lichen and moss, giving rise to the Casey area being described as the Daintree of Antarctica.

And now Monday has come round again. The weekend is over, and I am back in the office … and the weather has changed again. It’s been snowing heavily and there is a white fluffy layer over everything: ammunition for the next strong wind, no doubt soon to turn it into another blizzard!