Expeditioner with an eye to the sky

Alex launches a weather balloon at least once a day.
Alex launches a weather balloon at least once a day. (Photo: Vicki Heinrich)
Alex climbs an anemometer tower to service the equipment, which is used to measure wind speed.  A stunning view from the living quarters at Davis. Alex enjoys capturing cloud formations with his camera, including these mid-altitude altocumulus stratiformis clouds.

What’s it like to be a meteorologist in Antarctica? We asked Davis station’s weather observer and meteorology technician, Alex Rogers.

In Antarctica the weather observer is responsible for recording accurate weather observations, launching the daily weather balloons, collecting atmospheric science data and, at Davis, running the upper air ozone program. The data collected is used by forecasters, either at Davis or in Hobart, and is also collated as a climatological reference.

The weather is arguably one of the biggest impacts to daily operations in Antarctica and, along with our forecasters, the Bureau of Meteorology (BoM) works hard to offer accurate and objective advice.

The Antarctic summer flying season at Davis is the busiest time of year for the observer. It features a 5.00 am balloon flight, followed by half-hourly weather observations all day, capped off with another balloon flight at 6.00 pm. The winter season winds back to three-hourly observations, a balloon flight in the evening, a few hours of snow shovelling, and upper air ozone preparatory work. In between observations I fit in maintenance, repairs and upgrades as required. Being a weather observer, with an eye ever to the sky, I certainly have developed a good feel for the local weather patterns. I think I could smell a blizzard coming.

The BoM has a lot of sensitive equipment and instruments installed throughout the Antarctic and it’s my role as technician to maintain, fault find and rectify any issues that may crop up during normal operations. We have weather instrumentation, hydrogen generation and storage equipment, ozone analysis gear, weather satellite receivers, and an extensive networked system of remote weather stations. My favourite phrase is ‘have you tried turning it off then on again?’ Joking aside, you might find me climbing an anemometer tower, travelling to a remote weather station, drawing up some schematics and, more often than not, with a snow shovel in my hand on the balloon ramp.

This is my first time in Antarctica and the sights, sounds and experiences I have had since arriving, are poles apart from everyday life in Australia. When I first saw an iceberg, I remember thinking how staggeringly beautiful frozen water can be. The first Adélie penguin running across the ice also surprised me with their speed and agility.

I must say I felt some trepidation towards the infamous mid-winter swim. After a quick dive, a lap and a climb back up the ladder, the swim was over before it began, and it is still one of my favourite memories from the year.

I never expected to end up in Antarctica. In my youth I was fascinated with all things space and technology, and in 2002 I discovered a degree at the University of New South Wales that I believed would suit my interests perfectly. Four years, and a few grey hairs later, I graduated with a small class of aerospace engineers.

In my third year at university I developed an interest in biofuels, which led to my fourth year thesis on biodiesel use in aviation. I was fascinated by the concepts of renewable energy, renewable fuels and recycling of waste materials. When I finished my degree I picked up a position in the middle of the biggest biofuel project underway in Australia, which happened to be in Tasmania.

While in Tasmania I came across a job ad for a meteorology technician in Antarctica with the BoM. Having always had a fascination with the weather and experience in electro-mechanical fault diagnosis, I applied.

While my original life plan was to go to the Moon or Mars, Antarctica is the next best thing. It presents a landscape that is virtually untouched by the effects of tourism, and features similar weather conditions to an equatorial summer on Mars.

I love watching the changing weather and seasons here. I have observed extreme winds, heavy snowfalls, amazing cloud arrangements, and of course the light shows in the night sky. The challenge of finishing a complex project in difficult Antarctic conditions is another part of what makes this one of the best jobs on Earth.

In my experience the unexpected is to be expected in Antarctica. For example, living and working amongst large wildlife means that sometimes there is no choice but to wait for them to move along before you can finish a job. There is also the challenge of daylight hours, from 24 hours a day to zero sunlight in the space of only six months. My body took some time to adapt to these changes, but some excellent local tips on artificial light made a world of difference.

Probably the most challenging aspect of my job at Davis is scheduling a trip away from station. The BoM work strange hours and odd schedules, so we don't always fit into everyone else’s holiday plans. My field trips have been the highlight of my time at Davis and they often come with challenges, usually related to weather. One in particular involved an overnight vehicle dig-out at our skiway, which was a very satisfying, yet tiring, adventure.

There is an amazing variety of things to do here in our spare time. I am a gym junkie and the gym manager, so I spend some time every day keeping fit. When the weather permits I walk across the sea ice to one of the local islands. I always take my camera as you never know when the perfect shot will present itself.

I am a regular in the hydroponics facility where I can sit in some humidity and enjoy the greenery. Picking my favourite herbs I then head for the kitchen where I love to whip up something for smoko (morning tea) or a nice dessert. It’s an amazing community to live in and hard to find oneself bored.

If anything, spending time on the great white continent has strengthened my beliefs in preserving the beauty and majesty of these pristine places around Earth. I have also discovered an inner ‘zen’ and a bigger world perspective from my time here; one which I will carry with me for life. After spending a year battling the ‘A-factor’ (Antarctic-factor) I have learned that life does not need to be such a rush. Stop and smell the roses, or the elephant seals in my case. Although, I would suggest the roses take preference.

Alex Rogers
Meteorology Technician,
Davis station 2015