When you are about to spend a whole year on a base, lost somewhere in Antarctica, it is good practice to give everyone more than one hat to wear. Redundancy is key in a place where there’s no one to replace you if perchance you have tendency for sad ideias such as skipping rope with an live high voltage cable or run naked in the snow when there’s -45º outside. There’s the reason why all of us had gone through medical training and are encouraged to work in pairs.
One of the most intensive chores around Halley are the meteorological observations and the ozone readings. The processes by themselves are not that difficult as they sound and became almost automatic soon enough but… observations need to be made every 3 hours and the ozone readings almost as frequent. The real problem is that these things need to be done EVERY day. Doesn’t matter if its weekend, bank holiday, your own birthday ou Christmas’s Eve. In Halley some poor bastard has to be looking at the sky and messing around with the Dobson spectrometer every 3 hours. I will go deep in these concepts eventually but for now I’m just going through the synops (from Synoptical Observation, the technical name for it) that I’ve been doing around the Shackleton.
Besides hauling cargo, people and a really neat souvenir shop, the RSS Ernest Shackleton is also an official weather station, a mobile one that is. The synops made on board are critical to create a meteorological profile in the middle of the Earth’s oceans, something that a normal weather station can’t do. Meteorological phenomena are hardly local, hence the importance of making this synops all over the planet. An handful of clouds that look like the Beatles on the Southern Atlantic may result on a snow blizzard in Tunisia or a flood in west Mongolia. While I’m on board of the Shack, between moping floors, peeling potatoes and scrubbing toilets, I also help with these weather observations. Between all of us, new and former winterers, there are five people on board, including me, proper trained to do this synops. To ease up things, each one gets a full day of synops but normally we made them in pairs since there isn’t that much to do around here. It is part of the working system in Halley that the Engineers and the Data Manager help with the synops so that the Meteorologist can have some rest.
So what do you do on this synops after all?
Well, that depends from station to station and of all the instrumentation available. In the Shackleton the routine is pretty much running around the bridge looking to all sorts of screens. It was kinda fun and crazy doing these during the turbulent days. The bridge is the highest part of the ship not counting the crow’s nest, which means that every oscillation is way worse up there than in the holds. Trying to write all this numbers in my notebook while avoiding hitting the desks and the captain head first was quite a task.
Every three hours we need to get:
- The position, direction and speed of the ship
- Wind direction and speed
- Atmospheric pressure and its tendency in the last 3 hours (constant, rising, lowering, etc…)
- Air and water temperature
- Status of the sky, namely, percentage of it covered by clouds, their type and height.
- Ocean swell and wind waves: average height, period and direction.
- If there’s sea ice visible, we also need to register its type and approximate coverage over the visible ocean.
- In case of icebergs in the horizon, we need also to count them and get their approximate size.
Fortunately most of these parameters are obtainable by the ships instrumentation but there are others in which the only way is just look at the thing and pop up an educated guess.
That’s why its always a good idea to bring someone with you for a second opinion. Parameters such as the height and cloud types are hard to get precisely and normally generate quite a discussion since only rarely all converge to the same classification.
After a couple of days on it, the majority of the process becomes almost automatic except for the clouds discussions. Unlike Halley, the Shackleton doesn’t have a CBR (a Cloud Base Recorder, a very handy system in this situations. It uses lasers to measure the hight of the lowest cloud base which is the one that really matters in the synops.) and as such every guess as a whiff of subjectivity on it.
In the end of the synop, each parameter is converted into a code from a map from the WMO – World Meteorological Organization – and inserted into a web page that forwards this information to processing. The final code is going to be fed to a meteorological mathematical model eventually and, after being chewed up by supercomputers, it results in a weather forecast. Its because of these synops that millions of people around the glob can go to Accuweather and avoid getting wet on their way to work.
We lost our sea water thermometer half way to Antarctica. It appears that the sensor couldn’t cope with all the shaking from the first days. From that point on we had to get the sea water temperature using a highly complex scientific method composed by a bucket, a long rope and a mercury thermometer.
Along with the chance to hang around the bridge with the captain and the rest of the officers, these observations also allow me a unique perspective in how things are changing around us as we get closer and closer to the bottom of the planet. We are still at 57º latitude and you can already feel the big block of ice south of us. The ship’s interior is obviously warmed but still you can see less and less t-shirts and shorts around the corridors. Even though is Summer on this side of the planet, I’m guessing that I’m in around the same temperatures that I would be in Portugal or the U.k.
Its December and its cold outside.