The first blizzard

1st November 2004

Jeremy Smith, Station Leader

Casey is renowned – notorious would be a better word – for its frequent, prolonged and sudden blizzards, but in the ten days we have been here the weather till now has been uninterruptedly benign: cold, to be sure, with temperatures commonly around −20, but without a wind that is not dangerous or even uncomfortable unless you are inactive. Yesterday, a Sunday, was sunny as well, all day, absolutely delightful, prompting many to spend some time outside learning to ski, visiting the penguins on nearby Shirley Island, or just strolling around the station.

But today is different! During the night the wind picked up and by morning powdery snow was flying through the station at around 100 km/h (45-60 knots according to the read-out displayed in the mess, which I was watching as I drank my morning coffee). By 7.00 am visibility was below 100 metres, the wind was above 34 knots, and the temperature was below freezing, the combination of conditions that needs to be maintained for an hour for there to be an official record of blizzard. Now it’s just after 8.00 am: so it’s official, we are in our first blizzard!

It’s not a bad blizzard. I had no difficulty walking to work, and the science building opposite my window is still just visible most of the time. In summer blizzards generally persist for less than a day, unlike the several days that can occur in winter, and the winds are only half what they can be. A year ago, vehicles were picked up and thrown about in a big blow, so this is just a baby by comparison.

In fact I’m glad this blizzard has come, to give us all a bit of a reality check, especially the young newcomers who might otherwise become a little too casual in their approach to outdoor hazards. There is a group of them out there at the moment, hut-bound, doing their field training. No doubt they are reflecting on what it would be like to be caught out in these conditions. They have already done their ‘bivvy’, sleeping on the ground in a self-dug shallow snow trench, uncomfortable but safe in their sleeping bags inside an outer plastic bag. Now they can see why they were made to undergo that discomfort. In blizzard conditions, if you are caught outside it can be totally impossible to see or move, but the simple act of getting into your bivouac bag will save your life.

It’s hard to believe I’ve been here only ten days. I feel sorry for my fellows still ship-bound, it seems like weeks since we last saw them. The ship is out there somewhere beyond helicopter range beside a floe on which scientists are working measuring physical factors and sampling microscopic life, but later this week she will return closer to us and complete the transfer of passengers. Twenty or so further expeditioners will disembark, replacing a similar number who are to return home after their time here. It is very uncertain how close she will be able to approach. If the pack ice opens up (and this wind may help) she might get right into the harbour here, but if not (and this wind could also compress the ice) there is a chance she won’t get within range at all: then some hard decisions would need to be made, not by me thankfully, as to whether to wait or go.

Meanwhile those of us who have already arrived have been undergoing a relatively relaxed induction and changeover process with our predecessors. Such things usually happen over a hectic three days or so, but this year we have a fortnight. There has been time to visit all parts of the station, and its immediate area. I have walked through the local penguin colony, taken a short helicopter trip around our region, spent a day working in the kitchen, wrestled with work rosters and accommodation plans, attended to a couple of individual problems (one involving unexpected evacuation for medical reasons), and have generally settled in.

Life is good here. The weather may be variable, but the buildings and facilities are excellent, and have been left in very good order by their previous occupants. We are very well fed (although no fresh food had been delivered since January, nor will be delivered until next January), and comfortably housed. Water is scarce at present (it comes from a frozen lake and there is no further free water beneath the ice, so we are having to melt it) so showers are brief and only every second day, but that’s a small hardship. Most importantly, the community is in good heart. I’m looking forward to the five months of summer, and perhaps even more to the seven month winter to follow, before I too will be another old winterer waiting to get on the ship.

The science building has disappeared. This blizzard is worsening before it will get better.