Life in Halley II – Static Electricity

One of Halley’s signatures is a life fearing touching metals. I’ve heard stories from other Winterers, but reality is far more “shocking” – within the base there’s an abnormal concentration of static electricity which makes touching any metallic object an adventure.

But first, lets go to the Physics behind the problem. Actually, the explanation is quite simple: being suspended over an ice shelf with nothing but a few meters of salt water until the ocean’s floor, Halley has no “ground” contact, something that is very rare in the normal world. In fact, Halley must be one of the few  antarctic bases with this problem since the majority of them were constructed over the continental rock.

Every day we either loose or gain charge (free electrons that get attached or released from us) at all times. Whenever we touch metals or other people and animals, when we take the Autumn wind right in the face, when we run, etc. But since 99% of those times we are in touch with the ground (the Earth surface to be exact) or we are inside building that are “grounded”, i.e, have a electrical connection to Earth’s surface, any electron excess is rapidly discharged into the soil, that has a permanent electron deficiency and, as such, gathers any excess that can gather, only rarely we get charged enough to provoke a spark. Sometimes people shock others just by touching them. Cars, since they are isolated from the ground due to their rubber tires, also gather negative charge with some ease and that’s why people get zapped when they touch them while putting the key into the hole for example. But even though these are normal day to day events, they don’t occur frequently and that’s why they are rare when compared to how quickly we exchange electrons with our surroundings.

So what happens when you remove the ground connection? Halley happens, that what! Its true that the effect depends heavily in the materials used in the module’s construction, but the truth is that my first days around here were spent electrocuting myself every time that I picked up a fork or touched a metallic handrail.

Since there is no direct path from the base on to a decent ground, i.e, a good place with a permanent electron deficiency, these gather around the next best thing: people.

There’s a trick that seems to diminish the number and intensity of the electrical discharges: walking around barefooted. It seems ridiculous considering that we are surrounded by very cold snow, but inside the modules its warm enough to survive with just a simple pair of cotton socks. By walking over our soles alone, we are permanently connected to the module, which means that we are at the same electrical potential of everything that surrounds us. Yet, all it takes if for someone to be around us wearing tick rubber soles and we are going to be zapped if we got touched.

Though somewhat painful, these discharges are harmless for people and are even useful if we want to get back to someone. Believe me, a static discharge to the back of someone’s ears is not a pleasant thing. Yet, the same doesn’t goes to small electronics. If it is a washing machine or a toaster, it is going to hurt more to us than them. But if we shock a computer mouse or a compact camera… well, around here we have a closet that works as a graveyard for electronics that didn’t survived these friendly contacts.

With time we get used to it and even memorize the places where we need to be careful and the ones that we can lick at ease. The housing modules (B1 and B2) are peaceful. I don’t remember getting shocked int them at all ever. On the other end, in the scientific modules (H1 and H2) I got my hair spiked several times. The worse place is the observational deck where we do the synops. I’ve realized so far that it depends on the day, but there were occasions where my finger became numb with the magnificent shock that I threw to a poor PC mouse. It survived…barely. It went off for a couple of seconds, but resuscitated after a while. It is usual to hear swearing along the scientific corridors. High amounts of static electricity, distraught scientists and metal handrails create a funny combination.

Places where its expectable to get shocked:

– Door handles in most modules.

– PC connected mice.

– Metallic handrails.

Places where its expectable to get shocked but I always forget about them until I see the spark:

– H1 kitchen faucet.

– Metallic shelves in the storage room.

– Silverware in the dinning area.

– Refrigerator door.

Weirdest places where I got shocked so far:

– The WOODEN (!!) drawer in my work desk (yes, it has a couple of metallic rails and a few screws, but still…)

– In a pile of empty tuna cans

– In a watermelon skin


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