My first days in the Brunt Ice Shelf were spend playing fuel pumping dude.
The hold of the Shackleton has 260.000 liters of AVTUR that need to be transfered to portable tankers it order to be dragged to Halley, where they will be fueling mainly power generators in the base, any aircraft that goes by and the tractors and buldozzers that drink on that.
AVTUR is an acronym for AViation TURbine Fuel and, as the name implies, its airplane food. Besides being cheaper than diesel and regular gasoline, it freezes at lower temperatures and it burns at higher temperatures, something that may made it impopular in the normal world but it only brings benefits in this environment. Yet, it smells like rotten things (is there any nice smelling fuel out there?) and it is quite toxic and corrosive. All nice things to deal with then…
The question than one makes around this pois is why the hell don’t you use the 24 hours of daylight and one of the best exposition angles to the big ball of fire out there to feed, at least, the base?
Well, in reality, when Halley was in its project fase, this was one of the plans for it. But, that long ago, the cost per square meter of these panels and their low efficiency made that part of the project inviable. It would take a significant amount of them to get a useful amount of power. And the electric generators would always be in the base plans, even if only as an emergency measure or when Winter was fully set in.
The sad truth is exactly that: when Halley was on the design board, the technology was simply not enough for the energetic demand of it. But during the last couple of years we had significant developments in that sense, fortunately. Solar panels are today significantly cheaper, more efficient and robust. Who knows if Halley is not getting a solar upgrade in the future?
It seems a bit counter intuitive spewing huge amounts of greenhouse gases every year to the Antarctic atmosphere to…study the problems that derive from their excess.
But the murderous climate of Antarctica doesn’t allow any adventures in what energy generation is concerned.
During the Summer we may get fooled to think otherwise: temperatures are low but workable, some wind but nothing dangerous mostly and a snow fall here and there.
But as soon as the sun starts to drop in the horizon, mainly when we get back nights, the temperatures began to be lower and lower and the morning breezes soon became wind blasts that last for days and would be easily classified as national emergencies in the civilized world.
The problem is not so much in using solar panels or wind generators in Antarctica. The problem is make them to be able to survive a whole Winter in one piece. Until then, as contradictory as it sounds, AVTUR electric generators housed inside the modules seem to be the best option.
The fueling job is more boring than complicated. First we need to put the setup all together: fuel filter, hoses, and open any valves and taps necessary.
Then comes the complex and demanding process of looking at a gauge for more than 2 hours until the tank is full. Then is just repeat until running out of fuel or tanks. And I can’t even left the premises. If there a problem with the fueling circuit, someone has to be in this side to close the tank valves. Its a whole day packed with emotions…
Well, at least I have penguins. I’m just a few steps up the shore and once in a while I get a furry visit. Shortly below the ship’s docking point, the ice shelf descends smoothly almost to the water level, forming a small landing strip for the penguins that shoot out of the water. I got a constant visit from the fat Emperor from the first day.
For a critter so big, he’s as silent as a ninja. Its almost spooky. Sometimes I’m looking at that spot for hours and as soon as I blink my eyes for a second, he’s already there. The truth is that penguins are only slow and awkward in “land”. They are one of nature’s best swimmers and can get out of the water with an amazing speed. Other wise they would be easy prey for all the seals and killer whales around these waters.
With its trademark annoyed look, this Emperor stays for just a couple of minutes over the ice, mostly cleaning itself and sending a couple of “croacs” to god knows who. Sometimes it slides on his belly around the area, which is comical and practical at the same time, but it ends up in the ocean after a while.
And then I have the silly Adélies, well, its just one but anyway. During my first week here we got several visits from a lonely Adélie. It look like he was lost and was searching for his buddy, Unlike the Emperor, this one wanders among us, “croaking” around as if trying to call someone.
Sometimes it get confused with one of us or with a fuel drum, thinking that it found a companion, it runs towards people or small black objects, as fast as his little paws allow it, until he get close enough to realize the mistake. And thats it. Hours of this spectacle every day or so. Eventually it gets bored or hungry and goes back to the ocean.
In one of the first days, during one morning, six Adélies were swimming around there and jumped out of the ocean and get into the shore for a while, about 200 meters from the ship.
It was sunny that they and the little ones, after a proper cleaning, decided to lay their bellies on the snow and get some tan on their backs.
A few hours later, five of them got up and went back to the sea. One remained behind, laying still on the snow. A good couple of hours went by and we started to wonder if the poor critter had died, which was odd since there were no predators around there.
I was just wondering if I should go there with a long stick and poke him when he got his little head up and starts to look around all confused. It turns out that he had just overslept. He then rose very sluggish and slowly, only to realize that he was all alone.
He then proceeded to roam around the area, calling for his lost friends, until he got tired again and went back for another nap right by my fuel tanks.
Eventually he was awaken by the arrival of a tractor because when I went to check him out he was already gone, probably looking for a more peaceful piece of ice.
It was the laziest penguin that I’d ever met so far.