This week we have a Bureau of Meteorology theme with meteorological technicians keeping instruments happily running. We also follow the Casey weather balloon hunters essentially trying to find a needle in a hay stack.

Meteorological technicians in Antarctica

The Bureau of Meteorology technicians (met techs) in Antarctica — what do others perceive they do?

The variation and diversity of work is the one thing that makes the job interesting and challenging. I guess the observing work in itself is challenging as it’s not normally undertaken by met techs in Australia. The diversity of equipment and its ongoing repair and maintenance is always changing. Not only the Bureau’s equipment, but there is Australian Antarctic Division’s (AAD’s) equipment used in the aviation program plus other government agencies’ equipment, such as that belonging to the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO). What all this means is, there is a never a dull moment. Met techs can be fixing the hydrogen generation equipment (produces gas to inflate large sonde balloons) then the next day working in the great outdoors fixing an Automatic Weather Station (AWS).

Most people may commute for an hour or less to work in Australia. Try driving out to service an AWS in snow and low visibility for hours, in a vehicle determined to give you a full body massage as it ‘negotiates’ sastrugi, wind-sculpted snow. On arrival you are greeted by crisp, mind numbing temperatures. Even in summer, wind chill temperatures can get down to around −20°C. Pulling out the laptop to communicate with the AWS, you find the protective gloves produce multiple keystroke errors. The screen is unreadable due to the glare from the surrounding snow and your polarised glasses. If the sun is out, all you see is yourself on the screen. Then your laptop gets affected by the cold — the batteries pack it in. Not a problem, you brought the generator. Ever tried starting a Genset out there? The only thing that gets powered up is you as you repeatedly pull the cord and talk to it nicely.

Leon is the Casey met tech in 2013 and recently I shared a similar work day with him.

Balloon hunting

A new sport has taken hold at Casey, evoking the same, if not more, excitement than the Australia Day swim or the annual ping pong championships - balloon hunting.

Every day, the Bureau of Meteorology releases radiosondes attached to weather balloons to collect vital upper air data. Unfortunately what goes up must come down so the current met team have been exploring the options for tracking and recovering the balloon.

How hard can it be, after all? We’re only looking for a white balloon attached with white string to a small box 9 x 6 x 7cm big, against a backdrop of white snow and ice. Did someone say needle in a haystack? Ever thought of a different colour scheme? Perhaps some fluoro spraypaint?

Never to be daunted, met observer Janet and the most fearless trip leader on station, Emma, assembled a crack team of balloon hunters who suited up, loaded up on the carbs and set off on mission impossible.

The Hagg was skillfully negotiated along melted roads as far as possible, and then the balloon hunters set off on foot. Interestingly, all the balloons found were within a 20m radius of their GPS coordinates. We found this out the hard way on our first mission getting within 30m of the coordinate, deciding we couldn’t see the balloon, walking another 10km searching, before heading back for ‘one last look’. Luckily for us, that walk involved spectacular views over Casey station, iceberg horizons and some impressive crevasses.

After our first successful mission and balloon recovery, the team was pumped to rescue more balloons. So when the good news came in that there were three more within extended station limits, the baloon hunters geared up again. Sometimes in sport, things just go right and it started in the ‘sweet spot’ that day with two fast balloons. Unfortunately, despite exhaustive searching, the third balloon could not be found, with a vast melt stream suspected of stealing it from our turf. But as Meatloaf once said, “Two out of three ain’t bad,” and we did find a long-lost bivvy bag. Once again, the amazing views and the chance to get off station for a walk was all worth it.

Big thanks must go to the operational gurus Allan and Sharon for their indulgent support, and James and Ian — our field training officers (FTOs) — for cracking the GPS coordinates with their ‘Get Smart’ ice axe computers. Most importantly, to the inaugural Casey balloon hunting squad: Abrar, Ange, Donkey (Glenn) and Kev. Big thanks for your help guys, we couldn’t have done it without you. (Except maybe you Kev, seeing as you never found that last balloon.)

For the rest of you out there: training has already started for next summer’s balloon hunt and sign up will be at the beginning of the season. So get excited balloon hunters!