Inside the ping pong ball

Halley is located in a weird place of Antarctica. Most research stations were installed along the continent’s shore, with just a few in its interior. Halley is one of the few, if not the only one, that stands on top of an ice shelf with just the ocean bellow.

The simple fact of being completely surrounded by only snow and ice between us and the salt water can create all sort of curious situations.

Around us is just kilometers upon kilometers of ice and snow. Nothing more. No trees or plants, rocks, dirt, dust or even a small sandbox to build a castle or two.

Walking outside of the modules is kinda like walking in a beach. It only takes a few minutes until we get snow all over our boots, trousers and gloves. And in stormy days we even get snow inside our pockets, blown into them by the wind. Just like a day in the sand, but with a different substance.

The big advantage towards the beach is that snow is easily melted while the sand not so much. If I trip and fall on my mouth around here, I end up with just a numb tongue from the cold and a bit more hydrated. The same adventure in the beach translated in a whole week spitting pebbles.

All entry modules have a warmed up “boot room”, which obviously is not limited to dry boots. Its a “locker room” type of space, with plenty of shelves, benches and hangers for us to leave our snowy clothes. The bottom of the room is filled with simple electrical heaters that keep this room normally warmer than the rest, to a point were it can easily dry a full men’s wet overalls in an hour or so.
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Living surrounded by white brought a whole set of new situations that I even hadn’t imagined. The most curious is perhaps the effects of contrast in out daily life.

It starts out with this concept, largely unknown to the typical portuguese. Contrast is a concept that only makes sense in places with a considerable amount of snow around. I’m not even considering countries were only a couple of centimeters of snow fall each year, just enough to keep the streets slippery and the people scared of shattering hips. In order to see the effects of variations in contrast we need to go to any Scandinavian country, Siberia or Canada.

The contrast that I’m talking about refers to the way in which the light from the Sun hits us during the day. Basically, clear sky days are days with good contrast while cloudy days come up as “paper sheet” days.
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If the Sun shines directly over us, its light hits the snow directly and its reflected with a complementary angle. Translation: in a day like this it is possible to distinguish any characteristic in the snow, either a small sastrugui, a hole or a mound. This happens mainly because direct sunlight creates shadows and those shadows allows to discern whats going on in the white background.

But if the sky is clouded, then the sun light gets all scattered by the clouds before getting to the surface. Since the light now comes from all sorts of directions, it doesn’t create any shadows. In the normal world we don’t even notice this because we have so many colors and textures around us that shadows become redundant to detect things. A cloudy day is only more depressing than a sunny one and not much else. People don’t go around head butting walls and tripping in sidewalks just because they cannot see the Sun. In a cloudy day that’s exactly what happens here.
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I’d never valued our chromatic diversity until going a year into the ping pong ball. This was the funniest – and exact – expression that I’ve heard to sum up these cloudy days: “Its just like being inside of a ping pong ball”.

In a cloudy day we are able to distinguish only non-white things. Everything else – ground and sky – gets merged into a single entity, like someone had painted us in an empty canvas. Its interesting for one side because its create effects and situations that you cannot get anywhere else.
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But on the other side its extremely confusing and even dangerous.

There’s a contrast limit in place for pilots in which they don’t risk landing an airplane. Without contrast, a pilot can’t simply assess if the landing strip is OK or if its all bumpy and full of holes.
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Even the trips to outside of the station’s perimeter are conditioned by this factor. If we are about to go to an unfamiliar area outside of the perimeter it is vital that we have at least enough contrast to detect a crevasse before hitting its bottom.

On a cloudy day the sky is white… and the ground too. Sometimes, with a bit of effort, it is possible to detect a slight difference between the shades of white. But if the cloud layer is a thick one, its is impossible to know where does the ground ends and the sky begins.

Right after Summer, low contrast days are just dull. That’s because, before heading back North, the Summer people flattens out the snow around the station with the buldozzers before storing them for next Winter.

A day with low contrast its a day were we have go around the base slower in our ski-doos, but since we know that the snow is all flat and nice, we go around a bit more relaxed.
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But it only takes a few weeks of Winter to change that. Since the wind around here blows mostly in one direction – from East to West – this one tends to deposit any snow that it carries in the side of the building or container that’s actually away from it – the Western side – forming what we call a “wind tail”, which is but a pile of snow brought by the wind.

With low contrast these wind tails are literally invisible. Riding a ski-doo under those conditions is always an adventure.

Its a poor men’s version of a roller coaster.

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