This week at Davis: 5 May 2017

This week at Davis we are enjoying the auroras, experiencing our first blizzard, travelling to Platcha Hut and farewelling the elephant seals.

My corona

A few days ago in late April, the sun decided to let go some of its all mighty energy in the form of a solar flare. Not to get into too much specific/scientific detail (mainly because I don’t know what it all means), but this corresponded with a lot of aurora activity all over the world.

So I braved the cold and was fortunate enough to be outside at the right time to see the auroras in full swing. It was a storm of activity!

To the naked eye, the sky exploded with very meagre grey to greenish colours that danced across the horizon and almost lifted the darkness of the night. Almost as though it was a full moon that night. But the camera revealed what was really happening. An embarrassment of activity as my camera struggled to capture what was taking place. The sky was lit up with bright greens snaking across my vision, highlighted with reds and purples. I tried my best with my mediocre camera to capture the moment and am now only left with the knowledge that I should’ve bought a better camera…

Shoey (Balancing Technician and Plumber)

A green and magenta aurora is over the Living Quarters and Operations buildings.
The living quarters and operations buildings.
(Photo: Darren Shoobridge)
A magnificent green and magenta aurora is behind the silhouette of the old Met building.
The old Met building.
(Photo: Darren Shoobridge)
Shooey's silhouette against an aurora.
Trying to stand still for 15 seconds.
(Photo: Darren Shoobridge)
View underneath the green aurora looking straight up where the light is diffracted.
A corona.
(Photo: Darren Shoobridge)
A green aurora with silhouettes of the Pineapple and old Met building.
Looking over the 'pineapple' and old Met building.
(Photo: Darren Shoobridge)
Shoey with a long green ribbon like aurora.
Only had to stand still for six seconds for this one.
(Photo: Darren Shoobridge)

Our lovely weather

Weather, we all get it. Love it or loathe it, it just goes on with or without our approval.

I must admit part of the reason I applied to come here was to see the weather and feel the extremes. Here at Davis conditions are generally fairly benign if not downright pleasant, hence the nickname 'Riviera of the south'.

During the summer we get plenty of blue–sky days that make me feel like I am at some swanky ski resort rather than at the Antarctic coast.  Like anywhere else, the weather each day is a talking point as people relate their various experiences to each other, usually over a pile of hot food.

The downside of Davis’s moderate clime is the amount of snow we don’t get, which can make the place look a little ordinary as the rocks and dust are exposed. So when it snows, or we get a blizzard ('blizz') it generates a bit of excitement – ooh, something different! The weather then alters the station’s appearance and our perspective of it. I must say I am a big fan of snowfall – everything seems to relax somehow and everywhere I look it rings truer to my preconceived concept of Antarctica.

The other stations may mock or sneer at our cosy locale. It probably seems a little 'soft' compared to their rugged outlook, but everything is relative and we do have our moments.

For our wintering crew it has been a constant learning curve since the boat left. Each new low temperature is a new record for us and we look back fondly at how much warmer it was when it was 'only −8°C, or −12°C, or −15°C. It seemed like we would spend about a week at each decreasing temperature then the thermometer would drop again. Bit by bit we wore more and more layers. During summer wearing thermals at all was a last resort, now they are donned without hesitation and the weather update is carefully scrutinised to measure how much is needed to go outside.

We had a spell that saw us hit −29°C (nearly −30°C!) that really shook us to our core. New sensations came thick and fast – fingertips struggling even inside gloves, nostril hairs freezing to give a nice crunchy sensation inside the nose (and then running like a tap when inside and warm again). But as quickly as it came the extreme low departed and we now hover around −15°C to −20°C on most days, with about five to ten knots of wind. So we layer up to get between buildings, then peel off when we get there. 

And now we have just had our first blizzard. While the temperature was a relatively mild −7°C we had winds over 60 knots and nearly hit 70. Awesome! It was so exhilarating to crack the cold porch door and hear that freight-train whistle of the wind, step through and then wrestle the door shut against the air pressure. Walking to the workshop was an undignified pleasure as I ended up in a semi-crouch trying to get purchase on the wind-polished ice while I struggled to make any headway into the teeth of the gusts. A mere 80 metre walk had me gasping and breathless by the time I stumbled in the workshop door. And my ears were absolutely on fire with cold! It was like I had no beanie on at all!

Others staggered in and we all excitedly laughed at how amazing the experience was, swapping tall tales of near-falls. Surprisingly, the wind lasted several days and like anything else the novelty wore off. To try and move any goods around is near impossible and every trip anywhere is a battle. Then there is the incessant noise – the constant howl and moan around all the structures. As soon as your head touches the pillow at night there is a shift from sound to vibration as you sense every creak, groan and twang of the building as it flexes and moves.

Apparently this is an everyday occurrence at Mawson, and Casey gets 100 knot winds. So I am thankful that I am at Davis, safe in the knowledge that in a day or two it will be back to a measly five knots and a 'comfy' −15°C, probably with sunshine and blue skies!

I have been told we get an average of nine blizzards a year at Davis. I say (as soon as I have a decent night’s sleep and have done a few field trips) bring it on!

Rhys (Carpenter)

A snapshot of the weather data on station from the mess computer screen. Winds are 53 knots, gusting to 63 knots. Temperature is -4.8 degrees but -17.5 including windchill.
Not cold, but windy!
(Photo: Rhys Francis)
The sea-ice off shore is brown. Covered in dirt blown out from the local hills in the blizzard.
There's a lot of Davis dust out on the sea ice.
(Photo: Rhys Francis)
The external stairs at the workshop which are freshly cleared of snow.
Part of the everyday chore list: clearing the stairs of snow.
(Photo: Rhys Francis)
The outside of the workshop garage doors which have snowdrift piled up against them.
Snowdrifts make doorways hard work.
(Photo: Rhys Francis)

Overnight fieldtrip to Platcha Hut

Summer season is now well and truly over and winter is coming. However with the advance of sea ice we can now explore further afield.

A party of six set off Saturday on quad bikes from station at around 1130. Testing was done every 500 metres to make sure the sea ice was thick enough to travel on safely. It was mostly easy riding on smooth ice as far as Brookes Hut. Three of our party walked to Deep Lake for the monthly collection of lake data. The rest of us just enjoyed a hot drink and relaxation in the hut. On returning from the lake our party were soon back on the bikes to head off again up Long Fjord.

It was a pleasant surprise to see a small flock of snow petrels flying around in our vicinity as we rode up the fjord. A few kilometres from our destination there was a section of about 1 km of rafted ice which had to be negotiated slowly and carefully. Winding our way through a mini obstacle course of bumps, dips, snow drifts and jaggy bits took a while. Then we were at the top of a wide broad valley and a downhill run to Platcha Hut.

The hut is compact and has provision to sleep four on the corner bunk beds. Lötter and Tony volunteered to sleep out in the old hut which is unheated. There is a gas cooktop to heat up our meals and to melt snow for drinking water.

Later that night the wind speed picked up and by morning the gusts were nearing gale force. Light snow was falling and visibility was very poor. That’s when we decided it would be prudent to sit it out for a while and wait for the wind to ease off. By midday it had improved sufficiently to leave the comfort of the hut and load up the bikes. By the time we were at the top of the valley it was clear going and we made good time to get back home. It was great to get off the station for a change of scenery and to enjoy travelling through a spectacular landscape of grounded bergs and icy landscapes. Thanks to Lötter, Tony, Jock, Fitzy and Sharky for inviting me to join in on the trip.

Rob (Station Communications Technical Officer)

Ready to head off station on the quad bikes: Lötter, Rob, Fitzy, Jock, Sharky and Tony.
Ready to head off station: Lötter, Rob, Fitzy, Jock, Sharky and Tony.…
(Photo: Richard Coleman)
Two quads are parked on the sea-ice. Two people stand between the bikes talking to each other.
On the sea ice.
(Photo: Rob Bonney)
A view of Platcha Hut nestled in Breid Basin, up by the plateau. Quad bikes are parked near the hut.
Platcha Hut nestled in Breid Basin, up by the plateau.
(Photo: Rob Bonney)
The view to the east of the hut, looking at the plateau. The blue looking dune is the plateau.
The view to the east of the hut, looking at the plateau.
(Photo: Rob Bonney)
Platcha Hut with the older (unheated) hut to the left. The plateau lies behind the huts.
Platcha Hut with the older (unheated) hut to the left. The plateau…
(Photo: Rob Bonney)
Lötter relaxing inside Platcha Hut. He's sitting at a small table. Maps line the hut wall and a tilly lamp lights the hut.
Lötter relaxing inside Platcha Hut.
(Photo: Rob Bonney)

Winter is coming as the elephant seals head north

On Sunday, our last southern elephant seal left station to head across the sea ice in search of open ocean and food. The charismatic seals came to Davis to moult and their presence has been enjoyed by all. So it seems only fitting to reflect upon the elephant seals this summer and note their departure.

Facts for the station population this season include: The first seal of the season arrived on the 31st of January. Numbers peaked to 100 animals on the 14th of March. The last seal left on 30th April. They were all males as the females don’t travel this far south. They ranged in size from small (last year’s pups, around 200 kg) to relatively large adults (around two tonnes or so).

Previous research conducted on the local seals has shown that they come from the French sub-Antarctic Kerguelen Islands. Presumably travelling to Antarctic southern waters to feed on large fish and squid.

Elephant seals are known as being 'thigmotaxic', whereby they like, and seek out, body contact with each other. Areas where they gather are referred to as 'wallows' and are usually quite pungent, hence the nickname 'smelly ellies'. They are also vocal. The sound they make is not melodic however, but more like guttural belching noises. And they make these noises 24 hours a day, which resonate really well through the walls of the sleeping quarters building!

There is also quite a bit of jostling that goes on within a wallow, as they all try and get comfortable. They regularly have a reshuffle as one of them decides to lie on top of another one or upgrade their position. So there is raising of the head, the bearing of teeth and a bit of mock fighting. Eventually it always comes down to body mass. The biggest ones get the spot they want, while the little ones move to accommodate them.

Elephant seals are also unusual in that when they moult, not only do they replace their hair but they also shed the top layer of skin. As a result, the moulted hair and skin sloughs off in patches. The moult process also makes their skin itchy as they spend quite a bit of time scratching. Like other mammals they have five digits on their hands and feet. The fingernails, or flipper nails, are on the trailing edge of the flipper. Given their large, round body to small flipper size ratio and limited reach, achieving a good scratch appears to be quite a challenge.

We wish our furry friends safe travels as they return north and look forward to seeing them again next year.

Kirsten (Station Leader)

There is a row of six large elephant seals. One male can be seen coming in other the top of the group in an effort to push into the line of sleeping bodies.
Elephant seals, with the one on top trying to push his way…
(Photo: Barry Becker)
An elephant seal is straining with his flipper to reach the itchy skin on the top of this head.
Trying to scratch those hard to reach places - like the top…
(Photo: Barry Becker)
The old skin and hair is seen in patches overlying the new sleek coat.
The old skin and hair is seen in patches overlying the new…
(Photo: Kirsten le Mar)
The flipper of an elephant seal with its five fingernails.
The flipper of an elephant seal with its five fingernails.
(Photo: Barry Becker)
A group of elephant seals are all lying huddled together, surrounded by snow on the beach in front of station.
The wallow on the beach at the start of winter.
(Photo: Barry Becker)
Some of the younger seals mock fighting on the beach. Others are in the water.
Some of the younger seals mock fighting on the beach. Others are…
(Photo: Barry Becker)