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Rough Science 3 New Zealand: Mike Bullivant's Diary: Ice

Updated Tuesday, 27th February 2007

Mike Bullivant attempts to get to grips with a glacier.

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the team at the foot of the glacier Copyrighted  image Icon Copyright: Production team

Day 22 - Speed and Melt of Glacier
Day 1 of the fourth programme, and I really had difficulty getting out of bed this morning. The five-day break was wonderful, but getting back to work takes a real effort. By 8.30 am we’re at the sawmill recording the piece that will open the programme.

Ellen and I are given the job of assessing whether the Franz Josef Glacier that sits in a valley just south of here is melting, and if so, by how much.

Easy peasy I think, then Kate (Humble) tells us that we also have to devise some way of making a portable heat source for use by the rest of the team. They’re off up into the mountains for an overnight stay in a hut on the glacier. I wish I was going with them.

By 10.30 am Ellen and I have knocked together a device for taking measurements at the glacier face.

We’ve wasted a lot of time already this morning, as the other film crew need absolute silence while they record a long piece to camera from Kathy.

That’s one of the problems with Rough Science. The viewer is given the impression that we have three full days to complete these challenges, but in fact it’s something closer to a day and a half - if you’re lucky.

There are often times when you can’t get on because, like this morning, we need complete silence while the second film crew does its work.

By noon Ellen and I have set off from the sawmill with Sophie, our Director, Drew (the cameraman), Kate H and Kiwi Ian (on sound) to walk up to the glacier’s face.

At the glacier face we spend 30 minutes setting up our simple measuring device, which, if left overnight, will tell us whether the glacier’s melting faster than it’s advancing, or vice versa. Then it’s back down to the hotel. We finish early today. A relatively easy one…

Day 23 -Hand Warmers
Today turns out to be a great laugh. Sophie has decided that we should treat the chemistry in today’s challenge like a cookery programme.

I have no problem with this as I consider a lot of chemistry to be similar to cooking, and most cooking to be chemistry. Our challenge today is to make a set of hand warmers for the rest of the team, up in the cold on the mountain (the original challenge was to ‘devise a portable heating device’).

I decide to look at some exothermic reactions - chemical reactions that give out heat. One such reaction involves dissolving potassium carbonate in water (potassium carbonate is one of the major components of wood ash).

Unfortunately, we discover that this doesn’t generate much heat - just a one or two degree Celsius temperature rise at the most. The second method I try is much more successful; if you take chalk (calcium carbonate) and heat it in an oven to drive off the carbon dioxide, you’re left with calcium oxide, or lime.

If you add water to lime, you get a vigorous chemical reaction in which the lime is converted to calcium hydroxide (slaked lime). You can get a temperature rise of 30 or 40 degrees using this method.

The third way of generating heat that I explore is one that I know will generate so much heat that it’ll be useless for our purposes. It’ll be fun to try, nevertheless. It’s a chemical reaction called the thermit reaction.

It involves reacting rust (iron oxide) with powdered aluminium (from old drinks cans). Mix these two chemicals together and spark the reaction off, and you get an amazing amount of heat generated; the temperature will rise to something like 1 600° C.

The reaction was used to weld railway lines together, and our attempt at it manages to weld two bits of steel to the metal dish containing the chemicals. Impressive it might be, but practical as a hand warmer up in the mountains it ain’t. No - the reaction involving lime should do the trick, and should, if we use the correct amounts of lime and water, produce just the right amount of heat.

We have a great time filming the sequences today. Sophie’s got a mischievous sense of humour and we have a ball pretending we’re filming a cookery programme. As the day wears on, things get sillier and sillier. This is going to be a very funny programme.

No bad thing as far as the chemistry’s concerned. I think it’s a pity that chemistry gets such a bad deal out of Rough Science. We’re not allowed to give too much away as far as the recipes are concerned, as the BBC is, quite rightly, hesitant to enable viewers to repeat some of the reactions themselves.

They’re quite dangerous, even if you know what you’re doing, but they’re even more so if you have no idea what’s going on. Yet, for me, this is just what makes chemistry interesting - what brings the subject alive - the sight, sound and smells of chemical reactions taking place. Reading about it in a book can never have the same impact.

Day 24 - Speed and Melt of Glacier
Today’s going to be another relatively easy day for me and Ellen. All we have to do is spend the morning walking up to the glacier face, take a couple of simple measurements, and then return to town, from where a helicopter will fly us up into the mountains to join the rest of the team. The morning goes like a dream. The weather’s perfect yet again; clear, blue skies, and lots of warm sunshine.

The morning passes quickly, and by 3 pm, we’ve been helicoptered up to Luncheon Rock (two thirds of the way up Franz Josef Glacier) to meet up with Kathy, Jon and Mikey L. Their spirits seem high.

They appear to have had a pleasant night of it, and it looks like they‘re all still speaking to each other. Mikey L tells of a scary moment when he went out for a pee in the middle of the night. Apparently, he turned the wrong way out of the Alma Hut, and made his way, unknowingly, to the edge of a precipice.

It’s a good job that the glacier guide that stayed with them overnight had banned alcohol, otherwise things may have been even more hairy!




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