Life in Halley V – A sunny New Year’s Eve

When I was a kid, I remember watching all the New Year’s celebrations around the world. Not the Midnight stroke per se, but the preparations and all the parties that were on before the event. In those days I always got confused by the Southern countries, such as Australia, South Africa, Brasil or Argentina, in which people were gathering around beaches and outside parties in shorts and t-shirts. In Portugal it was too cold to get away from the fireplace, let alone go outside into the street. The thing is, I hadn’t learn about inverting seasons along the Earth’s hemispheres to that point.

For years I always had curiosity about spending a Christmas Day or a New Year’s in a warm beach somewhere. I never once though about going through it with the Sun sky high.

The extraordinary oscillation between night and day duration throughout the year is one of the most fascinating things that I’ve been able to experience. Sun at its apex at December 31st midnight? Check. Sundown at 2 A.M? Check. Full Moon at 3 P.M? Check.

I set foot on Halley for the first time in December 28th and 4 days later I was celebrating the arrival of the new year with a snow bounded barbecue at -10 ºC, which around here is tropical weather. Life in Antarctica just for starters.

Even though it was a party day, we have to use the good weather to work as much as we can. The last day of 2015 was clear of clouds and wind but it was a work day all the way up to dinner time as usual.

But this time dinner was outside were the guys were trying to wrestle grilled hamburgers and hot dogs into their mouths using thick gloves and giant jackets. Yes, -10 ºC is Summer weather but half hour standing over snow without moving much and we start shaking our teeth very fast. And there is also the exercise in equilibrium that consists in biting the food and not the gloves while trying to keep the lettuce and ketchup inside the bread and not on the jacket’s sleeve.

One difference between Summer and Winter around here is the amount of time that we have to eat food outside. In Summer its is perfectly possible to talk with people between bites. Worst case scenario, the food cools down (but not the beverages. You need to hurry with these ones since they don’t take long until become solid inside the cups and bottles). I’ve heard Winter stories in which the top half of the hamburger that its not facing the fire gets frozen again.

The most curious thing that I’ve watched was people using cloth protectors in beer cans to… keep it warm! Under -10 ºC it takes a while but if you got distraught, beer (or any other water based drink) freezes inside the can. Here we work thing differently: we have to use clever tricks to keep cold drinks warm when we are outside or risk ending up with a really bad ice pop.

In practice I’ve celebrated 3 New Year’s. In Summer all clocks around Halley, including mine, are 3 hours behind (GMT -3) so to coincide with Rothera station and avoid confusion in the pilots heads that flew between bases.

And then we have the New Year in the time zone where Halley actually is, which actually is the same one as in London and Lisbon, i.e, GMT +0.

Finally we have the real new year, which is quite more complicated. Earth needs around 365.25 days to complete a trip around the Sun but we celebrate the New Year’s arrival by the end of the 365th day. What happens to the 0.25 in excess? Nothing. In every “normal” year, a quart of a day is ignored.

But after 4 New Years, all these quarts add up to a full day and that’s too much to ignore. What happens then? February 29th happens, that’s what. Leap years serve this exact purpose: compensate the quart of a day that we ignored in all the previous New Year’s celebrations.

In another words, every year we have a calendar New Year’s arrival, which happens at midnight of December 31st, and than we have another more discrete transition – the planetary New Year – that happens when Earth is effectively at the same point in its orbit as it was a year ago. Anyway, the math is actually more complicated than that because the transactional period of our planet is not a round number, but nowadays its easy to go online and check the actual to when that happens.

So, besides the midnight sun, 2015 was also the year of the 3 New Years.


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