Penguin Soup and Dozer Wars

Well, the title says it all really. The cute fluffy penguins are all dead

now and Halley has been transformed back into a construction site full of boys

and their tonker toys. And it’s still a great place to be. Forget the magic,

the mystery, the endless conversations with the stars, no, don’t forget them,

but they are the things of dreams and memories. Today we are back in continual

sunlight, bright, harsh and true. The light is still magnificent and becoming

more entrancing every day as the sun drops lower, the fogs have started returning

that obscure building legs and call icebergs up from beyond the horizon. Fairy

dust has been seen, and so have ‘barchans’, crescent shaped dunes of snow deposited

as blowing snow crosses the surface. Against my intuition, the outside edges

travel at the front. Skiing was slippery a few weeks ago but has now become

delightful, especially compared to sinking with every footstep that is the alternative.

Kiting has taken off, so many folk flying past the window strapped to snowboards

or skis, jumping, falling, laughing with the wind. Yes, it is still a magical

place to be. But the penguin chicks are dead and our dozers played tug-of-war


There’s all sorts of things to report, it’s been a great summer so far. And

busy. Busy for us at the lab, more instruments arriving and a final push to

have a ‘summer intensive campaign’ that will produce data to justify our year

down here and the five years it’s taken to plan it. Plus, CODIS is moving in

and the impact might be similar to the years when dogs left or women arrived.

Everyone here knows what CODIS means, but no-one knows what it stands for. It

means internet, it means cheap phone calls around the world, free email with

unlimited attachments, privacy from BAS and more personal websites, news at

our fingertips and on-line shopping. Independence. Or another step away from

isolation? Who knows.

I went inside the big white sphere where the satellite sits the other day

and it really is impressive. It’s a big white ball that’s empty but for a huge

satellite dish and a locked box with electronics inside. So I guess, in your

world, it might not be that impressive at all. The thing that impressed me most

however, was the angle it pointed at. And the cool echoes it gave off when you

shouted into it. To all intents and purposes, it was pointing horizontally,

not up at the sky as you might imagine. To be precise, it sits at an angle of

5 degrees from horizontal. And that gives line-of-sight contact with a satellite

thousands of miles above the equator. Once again, a moment of thought to realise

quite how far south we really are.

Ok, ok, the penguins. It was cruel of me I know, shows how hardened I must

have become this year. Cruel but funny. And true. The penguin chicks are all

dead, those that hadn’t changed fluff to feather by about a fortnight ago. All

the sea ice at Windy Bay has gone. And I mean all of it. Right back to that

cliff that we climbed down to reach them. All that ice, that at one point stretched

beyond the horizon and doubled the size of this continent, all gone. I’m not

sure which I miss more, the ice or the penguins but I think it’s the ice. I

do feel for the penguins though, it was a particularly windy winter and then

such a warm summer. I don’t think the ice usually dissappears this early. In

fact, I know it doesn’t. It’s my third summer down here and in some ways that

means I know more than many but in others it means I am realising just how little

you can make wild sweeping comments about this place. Summer zero, so much ice

that the ship never even made it in. Summer one, not much ice at the beginning

of the season and none at the end. Summer two, a thirteen kilometre relief at

the start of season and a good few ks at the end too. Summer three, well, it

looks like a warm one again.

The lack of ice has implications. It means that any penguins that couldn’t

swim will have drowned. And as far as I’m aware, they don’t have the ability

or knowledge of how to swim as long as they wear fluff. I guess they don’t need

it. More selfishly, it also means that sno-cat after sno-cat won’t be able to

carry cargo down to the ship at the end of the season. And I have about 8 tonnes

of cargo that, in an ideal world, I would like to see on that ship when I leave.

If push came to shove, I guess we could get it down to 5 tonnes of ‘essential’

stuff. And if we can’t put it on a sledge behind a sno-cat, most of it could

be broken into smaller units that we could handball individually. Could take

a while though! First, though, I guess we should focus on getting some science

out of this kit.

Another very cool thing about this summer is the arrival of representatives

from the three companies competing

to design Halley VI. They’re here for a fortnight, along with the co-ordinator

of the competition, and seem to want to know everything about this place. They’ve

shown us their plans and in return want to know what is and isn’t viable, what

our grumbles are, what we love about this place, whether melt-tank is as bad

as it sounds and if we really need as much space as everyone bid for.

They have a budget of £19 million and all say it’s going to be tight.

Corners must be cut, glitz lost, to fit within that budget. So today, they had

a tug of war between two bulldozers. How much can a dozer really pull? How wide

could that ramp be? How much weight can the sea ice take? How reliable is the

relief operation? The winner will be decided at the end of this year and then

they’ll have a year to finalise and commission their plans, two summers to supply

and build the new site and one summer to move the science across before handover

to BAS in 2009–10.

It’s a ridiculously tight timescale on a fairly restrictive budget but these

boys are keen and it’s great to watch the zeal with which they attack each new

day. They’ve had, or will have, a day or two each with the science platforms,

the plumber (tunnels), electrician (fire), garage (vehicles), field assistants

(relief and logistics), steel team (legs) and chef. They ask about personal

space, work space, colour schemes, hydroponics, buildings that walk, auroras,

bar games and boot rooms. One told me recently that he thought the new environment

would attract more women and improve the gender ratio but I said it wasn’t really

a problem. In fact, I was quite surprised when he said he found it a very male-dominated

environment. I don’t. Shows how long I’ve been here. That, and the fact that

I enjoyed watching bulldozers playing tug-o-war this evening on tv and was seriously

interested in the loads they could pull. I’ve come a long way, and I’ve got

to go back a long way too before I’m half the girl I ever used to be.

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13 Responses to Penguin Soup and Dozer Wars

  1. Matthew says:

    The penguins are dead? Dead? This is a bombshell, casually tossed off. Did I miss something in a previous post? I’m a little devasated and demand more explanation.

  2. Rhian says:

    Hello Matthew, how lovely to hear from you.

    The penguins aren’t all dead,- just the cute fluffy ones that can’t yet swim.

    It goes like this: when they’re little they can’t swim, they stand on ice, the ice melts or blows away, they drown.

    That any clearer?!

    See you soon!

  3. Charles says:

    Matthew has one little offspring and all of a sudden he becomes a penguin-hugging Al Gore type. One more baby and he’ll trade in the World Financial Center for the Village Voice.

  4. esteebie says:

    would the ice have held firm if the cute little fellers hadn’t been shiteing on their own doorstep for the last 9 months? – No wonder they lost the ability to fly


  5. simon says:

    Never mind the penguins – tell us more about this CODIS thing. Will it mean I’ll be able to read your website? Or even post comments? Sounds great!

  6. Rhian says:

    Oh God, folk at Halley were never meant to be able to read this stuff! Now the truth will come out. Love the new look, Felix.. or praps not so new look (?). We’re online!!!

    with love from your fully wired sister.

  7. Jim says:

    Hi Rhian…

    Glad to hear you are finally getting technology

    down there!

    CODIS stands for “COntent Delivery Improvement by Satellite”.

    Sorry about the wee penguins, but they will bounce

    back in another season.

    I hope you find rooom for all your stuff on the trip home.

  8. Stefan Geens says:

    Rhian, any thoughts on this? Did you see any gay penguins on your many visits?…


    “Gay” penguins spark protest

    Fri Feb 11,12:16 PM ET

    BERLIN (Reuters) – A plan by a German zoo to test the sexual appetites of a group of suspected homosexual penguins has sparked outrage among gay and lesbian groups, who fear zookeepers might force them to turn straight.

    “All sorts of gay and lesbian associations have been e-mailing and calling in to protest,” said a spokesman for the zoo in the northwestern city of Bremerhaven on Friday.

    He said the zoo concluded the penguins might be gay after seeing male penguins trying to mate with other males and trying to hatch offspring out of stones.

    German media reported that female Swedish penguins would be brought to the zoo to test the theory, but when word got out about the plan, the phones started ringing.

    “Nobody here is trying to break-up same sex pairs by force,” the zoo’s director Heike Kueck told public broadcaster NDR. “We don’t know if the three male pairs are really gay or just got together because of a lack of females.”


    Swedish penguins are real seducers.

  9. Padre says:

    I’m with Matthew – that news about the penguin babies was tough to take. I think what he’s trying to say is that we needed a bit more of a warning… Maybe a post one week saying “Remember, life is difficult sometimes – especially if you are a small, flightless bird living on a chunk of ice”, and then one the next saying “Hey folks, some bad news is coming”, and then a week later, dropping the bomb.

    Just a thought.

  10. nick says:

    so how much could the bulldozers pull?

  11. Rhian says:

    I asked the vehicle mech and ofcourse there’s no simple answer.. is the snow soft, are we on an incline, have you started moving or are starting from standstill, how deeply dug in is the object etc etc but the D5 easily pulled the D4 and a rough number for you, in Halley conditions, is prolly around 25 tonnes. They pull much more at South Pole I think but condition are different there… either way, the limiting factor getting stuff up here from the ship will be how much the sea ice can hold and not how much the dozer can pull.

  12. mine says:

    Know more about it at

    Use the search and follow the link!

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