Resupply reflections from 'The Bureau'

Resupply 'Balloon-acy'

Imagine the sheer number and variety of items a big village needs in a year. Then imagine a self-contained, big village with its own fire and emergency response teams, trades workshops, medical centre and waste management facilities. Then imagine the village has a particular purpose - research support - and that it’s in a very particular environment - Antarctica - and you may be building an idea of the resources needed to support it.

On Wednesday this week we finished the sterling effort that was the Casey annual refuel and resupply – 1.05 million litres of fuel pumped, and 1,286,927 kg of cargo unloaded from ship to shore, plus 455,558 kg of cargo backloaded to be returned to Australia. Every item you can think of and many you might never imagine has been handled by our hard working cargo and support teams, from a precious magnetometer to tile grout, a medical centrifuge to an entire frozen pig. Notably, we’ve taken delivery of the new Traverse Medical Facility, a modified container-on-sleds specially designed to support the deep-field Million Year Ice Core (MYIC) Project. This is looking good for 2024 after our trail blazing MYIC 2023 traverse team reached the project site eight days ago. The heaviest items brought ashore were two new bulldozers and an excavator, which weighed around 30,000 kg each. At the other end of the weight scale was saffron, paper party streamers and sachets of bowel prep (thank you, Dr Jan, for that insight. I think).

Amongst the plentiful cargo received here at the Casey Meteorological Office we have a new visibility meter, a year’s supply of sample flasks for the air quality research support we undertake for CSIRO, and 750 weather balloons. Casey Met Office is part of the Global Upper Air Network (GUAN), a system of 170 meteorological observing stations around the world which take regular ‘soundings’ (measurements) of the upper atmosphere, collecting data such as temperature, humidity, wind speed and wind direction. To do this, every 12 hours we launch a weather balloon which carries aloft a radiosonde, a small instrument that collects the data. The GUAN has high standards, requiring the soundings of member stations to consistently reach a minimum pressure level of 30 hectopascals, which is variable but about 77,000-79,000 feet at Casey at this time of year. We undertake quality control for each flight which entails recording launch conditions, ensuring that the sonde returns consistent and meaningful data and monitoring height reached (at the moment, most of our flights reach about 120,000 feet). The balloons need to be filled with a gas which is lighter than air and can be made here (we’re not quite on a gas cylinder delivery route). So we use hydrogen, which is very functional but needs a bit of care to work with. PPE has never been so fashionable!

The data from upper atmosphere soundings is incredibly valuable, from the moment the balloon is launched to decades later. A recent sounding supports accurate meteorological observations and forecasts, giving (amongst other things) a snapshot of the upper winds, and allowing likely cloud heights and thicknesses to be assessed. GUAN data is also needed to ‘truth’ global weather prediction models. It gives the models an accurate starting point, and the model predictions can be compared against soundings over the subsequent 24-48 hours, assisting forecasters to assess how well the models are performing. Long-term, the soundings contribute to the climate record, which is important in itself but is also used by many researchers in disciplines such as glaciology and atmospheric sciences as a point against which to reference their data.

What do I love about this? Amongst many other things, knowing that the radiosonde data we collect and the surface observations we also make are contributing to a really critical body of knowledge. It is doubly precious here because of the relatively low number of met observations stations in the southern hemisphere, particularly in Antarctica. I also love the mix of old and new - there still isn’t a better way to securely attach a modern biodegradable balloon to a high-tech sonde than to have a human tie it on with string, and no better way to get the balloon aloft than to have a human launch it.

I’ve felt privileged to be part of the work that we’ve been doing at Casey to sustain ourselves for another year, surrounded by so many dedicated, knowledgeable and incredibly hard working people. Hauling recalcitrant ice floes away from the fuel line in the freezing small hours of the morning was a labour of love but strangely satisfying. And being on an unpacking team when all the coffee and chocolate was delivered - just coincidence….

- Clare Ainsworth, BoM Observer - Casey station

Winter is Coming ...

Mirrored in the glassy, ice strewn waters of Newcomb Bay, lies the lifeline for another year of operations at Casey station - the resupply vessel Happy Diamond, or "Happy-D" as she is affectionately known. The unassuming appearance of this ship belies a capability that provides much more than just the ability to penetrate the iceberg littered waters of East Antarctica, and deliver cargo to our Southern home. Amongst the provisons, vehicles, and equipment in her hold, she also provides emotional support through a special cargo. She brings us mail, the words, gifts and thoughts from home, a personal connection that is so vitally important to the expeditioners who make sacrifices to contribute to the research that is conducted here. Partners, children, family, friends, and even pets - we have all left someone behind to be here.

I have spent many years of my life underwater in the submarines of the Royal Australian Navy, patrolling the waters of the world, and I have known isolation in doing this. Antarctica provides a similar, but at the same time very different kind of isolation.

Experiences like tasting fresh produce, or drinking milk that isn't made from powder, are the same, yet at sea we were to a fair degree masters of our own destiny. We could steer our own course home, if things "went South" so to speak. Now we are very much South, and about to be isolated from the world for the eight months of Antarctic winter. There will be no access by ship or aircraft for this period, as the sea ice reforms, and the harsh winter weather prevents air operations. True isolation. Fortunately, our communication with home is far better than what we had on submarines!

This resupply period has taken contributions from the entire station, over several weeks. It is a mammoth undertaking, only made possible through combining the skills and efforts of over 100 expeditioners into one cohesive logistics machine. A machine that has completed the refuelling and unloading of two vessels without incident and well ahead of schedule. A machine built from amazing chefs, skilled plant operators, ever reliable trades support, station supply gurus, and hard working unpacking teams. In the Meteorology section, we have of course done our best to coerce the weather into cooperating, also with great success!

From early February, flights will commence to Hobart and the station crew will be significantly reduced in number. We that remain will continue to support the important scientific research on the continent, and the Happy-D along with the Aiviq (one million litres of diesel), have ensured our winter is not just comfortable, but safe.

- Bruce Dening, BoM Technician - Casey station

The Wind, the Drop, the Sun and the Rock 

The Wind, the Drop, the Sun and the Rock
Together do lock, liberate, and clock
The cloud, the mind, our sight and time
To which control the forces defined
A series of sequences, pulses, and stalls
While some fall short and begin to pall
Yet some will roll, release and fall
On their journey within to the River Unknown
In the forever space at the infinite zone.

Where breath and drop, rock, light unite
And sound out this space where we feel the light.
This small stretch of space in our backward bend
Is but an instance of the greater trend
To swim the depth of a rain drop falling;
You, a particle of light, be not stalling,
Learn the signs, the symbols of halting.
So as it is with each new breath we test
This forever space and the infinite rest.

But for to whom that are on this path
With strength and graciousness beyond our math
Creating this place, a space where infinity comes
To drum a peace with life here in the Sun
A place for the foundry of human power
Forged from the wreckage of thine Sentinel Tower
Here is for you a lotus, our flower,
An offering from rock carried from base to top
Our breath, our light, our water
This drop.

- Dan Atwater, BoM Forecaster - Casey station