A met observation and a visit to Scott’s hut

I woke up this morning to a happy birthday to Alice announcement over the PA, followed by some very loud Christmas music – Santa Claus is Coming to Town. When I got up there were Christmas decorations and trees everywhere. It was all very cute.

"The weather outside is frightful, but inside it's quite delightful ..."

Yesterday I did a meteorological observation with science technician Nita Smith. This synoptic observation – the same data is collected at met stations all over the world – is done every morning at 9am, 365 days a year, whatever the weather. In Condition One (visibility less than 30 metres or winds over 100kph or windchill lower than –73°C) the technician clings to a rope that runs from the door of the Hatherton Lab to the Stevenson screen outside. Nita says that when it’s really cold, if you have even a tiny bit of skin exposed for the few minutes it takes to make the observation, you can return with a nasty patch of frostnip.

Nita Smith at the Stevenson screen, Scott Base. Check out the wind turbines on Crater Hill behind her.

But no Condition One for us – apart from a bit of fog, it’s been Condition Three (visibility greater than 300 metres, winds less than 89 kph, windchilll less than –60°C) the entire time we’ve been here. Inside the Hatherton Lab we checked the anemograph, which maintains a 24-hour record of wind speed and direction, and the barograph, which records pressure. The instruments told us that there was no wind, the maximum gust over the past 24 hours was a 25-knot gust at 0345 that morning, and the air pressure was 971.6 hpa.

Outside we read the thermometers in the Stevenson screen, which revealed a maximum temperature over the past 24 hours of 2°C – “the highest all season,” said Nita – a minimum temperature of –4°C and a current temperature of –2.1°C, which Nita described as “pretty damn tropical”. The visual observation – 8/8 of cloud cover, light snow flurries – completed the observation. The astronomical observation will be the same all summer: next sunset? February 21, 1.16am.

Even Scott had a Stevenson screen.

Everyone has been talking about how warm it’s been this year. The melting snow has been causing a bit of trouble when it finds its way through cracks in the roof and suddenly starts dripping through to the floor inside. On his journey 100 years ago, Scott and his companions suffered from melting snow. On this day 100 years ago, they was stuck in a camp on the Slough of Despond, 12 miles from the Beardmore Glacier. It was warm, like it is now, but windy and snowing, with the melting snow inside the tents making life even more miserable.

“The storm shows no sign of abatement and its condition is as serious as ever,” he wrote on December 7, 1911. “Surely few situations could be more exasperating than this of forced inactivity when every day and indeed every hour counts. To be here watching the mottled wet green walls of our tent, the glistening wet bamboos, the bedraggled sopping socks and loose article dangling in the middle, the saddened countenances of my companions – to hear the everlasting patter of the falling snow and the ceaseless rattle of the fluttering canvas – to feel the wet clinging dampness of clothes and everything touched, and to know that without there is but a blank wall of white on every side …”. It goes on. And then he talks about the poor ponies, none of whom chose to go on a march to the South Pole. It’s all a bit distressing.

Bottles of chemicals and glass plates in Ponting’s darkroom.

We went to Scott’s Hut at Cape Evans – his last base in Antarctica – on Monday. A few years ago snow and ice build up was causing structural damage to the hut, and a century of freeze and thaw cycles were accelerating the decay of the artefacts inside. But the Antarctic Heritage Trust has now carefully restored the site, excavating snow and ice from beneath the hut and drying and repairing the timber walls and floors. Conservators – camped in a row of yellow tents beside the hut – are now working on all the items inside the hut.

Workbench covered in scientific optical equipment.

It was dark, cold and grim inside. At the end of a group of bunk beds – where Cherry-Garrard, Oates, Wilson, Meares and Atkinson slept – one of the men had pinned a photograph of a woman and two children, I’m guessing it was his family back home. But another of the men, I don’t know who – and it might have even been after Scott’s expedition – had a photo board with pictures of English dogs on it.I imagined that he must be young, with no wife or girlfriend, so he brought dog pictures instead. He missed his dogs. There was too much pathos, and it set me off crying.So I quietly wept my way through Scott’s hut, while still appreciating the jars of potions in Ponting’s darkroom, the optical equipment set up on the workbench, and the much-photographed boxes of Fry’s pure cocoa, Sunlight soap and Colman’s mustard in the kitchen.

Still food on the shelves in Scott's hut at Cape Evans.

Everyone says this place gets under your skin. I think it’s been under my skin for years, decades even. I know my time here will be fleeting and there’s no guarantee I can ever come back, so I’m longing for it even while I’m here. This place feels like coming home. I can’t quite make sense of it.


About Rebecca Priestley

I have a PhD in the history & philosophy of science and I write about science and science history. I live in New Zealand.
This entry was posted in Antarctic, Personal, Travel and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to A met observation and a visit to Scott’s hut

  1. Ruth Brassington says:

    Yo ho ho! What a jolly memory-story this one will be, and for all your descendants. You always liked challenges! Enjoying those blogs immensely.

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