Blog 7: 18/12/18

The last words of this blog are written from 37.000 feet altitude in definitely the most comfortable airplane I have ever been in. It’s a Boeing 757 which is normally used to transfer big artists such as U2, the Rolling Stones,… Yet another unique experience but a welcome chance from the vehicle I spent the last week on Antarctica in; the Toyota Hilux.

Wednesday we departed towards the coast to collect our final samples there and install a new site as well. The plan was straightforward. 3 days, 3 locations, 1 day driving up and 1 day driving back, staying in tents, be light, fast and autonomous. We would drive to a location 150 km away from the station were we set up a central camp and work on the samples, each day departing from the camp with the Hilux. Going to the coast meant we were to pass the fearsome sastrugi fields (rough icy terrain) we encountered on the Romnoes trip again. (Small disclaimer; due to abnormal snow accumulation past winter, the terrain really is much rougher than normal.) Luckily for us, Jean-Louis and his team of glaciologists were also planning to stay at a central base camp near the coast for a few days since they wanted to go to the drilling site of last year before starting with the ice coring on a new location. As they have living and storage containers, which have to be dragged to the site on sledges using two Prinoth tractors, the convoy will clear the road for us. Big downside; the Prinoths average around 10 kph, thus the trip took us 16 hours including the refueling stop. Furthermore, due to the bad weather and the ice desert around us the only thing to see was the back of the container in front of us. It was a long day.

On the upside, it did give Manu more than enough time to brief us on the conditions, how to stay warm, how to use your tent (yes, you can use a tent in a wrong way), sleeping bag, food rations and so on. Arriving on the location we encountered some of the best coastal Antarctic weather you will find; heavy winds and almost white out. Challenging conditions to set up a tent, but eventually with some helping hands here and there everyone got his/hers erected and quickly went to sleep. At first, I thought I would never be able to sleep in the tent as the wind makes the tent’s sails move as if someone is physically shaking the tent, but it proved no problem. In fact, I had great nights and learned to sleep everywhere in Antarctica.

The next day the troublesome weather made place for a stunning bright sunshine and a slight sea breeze, perfect! In the morning, we helped Jean-Louis settle and organize a bit after which we departed to the site where they drilled ice cores last year. The glaciologists remained there as we drove on to our most northern (at that moment) sample site. After having had some “technical” issues on which I cannot elaborate but it involves removing the backseat of the car with very little tools (oops) and a little detour, we arrived at our familiar three-pole set-up. It is a stunning location! 15 km from the coastline, with the nice weather, we had a clear view on the ocean and the icebergs. Amazing! Filter exchange again went without issues but the drive and technical problems cost us a lot of time, in the end we made it back to basecamp around midnight.

Next day we scheduled to go for Breid Bay, were we will install our samplers only 2 km from the sea ice. Taking into account the previous troubles, we prepared the Hilux early and departed at 9 am. It was an easy drive and Alain picked us a perfect spot. The weather was even better than the day before! Antarctica at its best! We took plenty of time to install the three poles and spent some more near the location for lunch and to enjoy the surroundings. Coming back early to the base camp also meant we had the kitchen container for ourselves so, take things easy, relax and make a short call home on satellite phone.

Saturday was a special one! The last day of field operations on Antarctica for us. It proved to be a challenge as we had to find the last location in a total whiteout with visibility less than 5 meters. The GPS coordinates however, were perfect! No trouble finding the station and with all the experience we build up last weeks, no problems to efficiently service it in high winds. Our work is done here! And it is a perfect 7/7 as we found back every sample and did everything which was in our program.

There was a lot of euphoria but also some sadness because this incredible experience is about to end very soon. As we will be flying back to Cape Town on Tuesday, only Monday was left to finish some final stuff in the measurement shelter at the station and to prepare samples and hardware for shipment back. It was a busy and emotional final day but it was finished in the best way possible; A reverse wind scoop. The little tour around the neighboring mountain proved to be more challenging in the reverse direction and Daniel let us play around a bit on the big ice blocks and slopes. Under the low standing sun, it certainly is one of the most beautiful places on earth. Then Tuesday, after a lot of hugs, farewells and saying goodbye to everyone and the station which has been our home for more than a month, it was time to go. A bright red Twin Otter took 5 of us back to Novo Airbase where we immediately boarded the luxury Boeing were I’m sitting in right now. Thank you so much to everyone in the station, all the supporting personnel home, the university and Belspo to make such an amazing field trip possible. I come back with so many unforgettable moments and laughs! An extra big thank you to Manu and Henri with whom we worked very hard to achieve all our objectives here! It has been a pleasure and an experience never to forget. Finally thank you for reading the blogs, I hope you enjoyed them all. See you!

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Bumpy blue ice


BLOG 6 10/12/18

It’s been a while since I wrote a blog, but it is because of the simple reason that not a lot happened last week. Tuesday a new group of scientists, glaciologist, was supposed to arrive and we were , also supposed, to go to Romnoes again. The game breaker was the Antarctic weather! It has been limiting our moves the whole third week here and sometimes even locking us up inside. During this week the most exciting thing was an infection of the water supply on Monday. The water we drink is actually just melted snow so an infection of the centralized system would cause severe troubles. Luckily, when the water engineer detected the bacteria the colonization was still in an early state and they were able to kill the bacteria with a hypochlorite treatment. The infection did cause some rumble amongst the people here as they were informed not to use water that evening. The next day I could let out my inner scientist, Aymar asked me to quantify the remaining free chlorine and we put the bacteria under the microscope to let everyone have a view as a sort of information campaign.

Tuesday, the news arrived that the plane carrying besides the scientists also a lot of food and parts was not going to arrive before Friday. But we were not complaining, the guys who should have been arriving that day must feel terrible with the 3 day delay and furthermore they are stuck in Novo Air Base. Not the most exciting place on the planet. With the high winds outside the choice in things to do is limited. Fitness, watching movies and helping in the kitchen gets boring rather fast so, I offered my services to Mathieu, the chief carpenter. I could help with the isolation of the garage, putting up a vapor screen and finishing the walls with OSB. Mathieu and the guys were very happy with the helping hand and so was I, feeling useful again.

Benoit and I made it our specialty to launch weather balloons in the high winds (50-60kph constant). It is impressive, barely being able to see the station from the launch site 200m away because of the amount of snow in the air and the need to have the balloon firmly between two arms while the other fills it in order to prevent the wind from tugging it away prematurely. Friday, the weather finally got better and it enabled us to check upon all the instruments that were exposed to the storm. It definitely gave us a lot of confidence to find everything in perfect working shape; they should all be able to get to the end of the season before they are brought inside again for the winter. The sunny weather should also allow planes to take off and land again right? Again bad luck for the glaciologist team, a medical evacuation on the Japanese station occupied all logistic services the whole day. Finally the next day, Saturday, the plane arrived and I went with a small team to welcome and unload the DC-3 plane. In the afternoon Manu and I went out in the field to re-flag the route to Teltet. It’s been some years since this was done and most flags disappeared so Alain asked us to put new ones. Every 200m to the mountain, we put a bright red flag indicating the safe route to follow.

On recreation day, Sunday, we immediately got to use our new route since Aymar and I went again to Teltet, this time by skidoo bringing ski’s and a snowboard. The wind of the last week has an advantage; it deposits a fresh layer of snow on the mountain slope. Perfect conditions for some winter sports. It is an incredible feeling to go down, drawing long curvy lines on the powdery slope. Snowboarding in Antarctica; with incredible views over the mountains, we both took some time to just sit in silence and let it sink in! The only downside is that there is no elevator so the only way to go up is to climb, but it is most definitely worth it!

Monday we would finally have another go to try to get to Romnoes to exchange filters. At 10 am we departed, a team of three consisting of Manu, Stefania and me on skidoo’s. The road was, like last time, rough. Consisting of deep icy holes and ridges it was difficult to maintain speed. The bumps also caused issues with the sledge and the cargo to loosen. We were really pushing the skidoo’s, trying to go fast enough to fly over the little bumps but no too fast to anticipate the big ones. After four hours we finally surpassed the point where we had to return the previous time, it already felt like a victory to me. The last 10 km another obstacle came up. Bumpy blue ice. It is beautiful but the skidoo’s have very little grip on this hard ice. It may sound like good times to do some small drifts but the fun quickly ends when the track catches a bump and nearly tips the skidoo. Again, it forced us to go slow and steady but that way we finally arrived at the site. Weather was as good as it gets and because of this we could go very easy and clean on the exchange. Following our tracks with 2 Prinoth snow tractors, a lot of trailers and a Case tractor was Alain and his machine operators. They were going to Perseus 10 km south of where we were to clear a blue ice runway for an Ilushin plane to land. Of course, we stopped on our way back to say hello, drink a coffee and thank them for creating a highway back to the station. The tracks of the big machines broke the tough ice and filled the holes creating a perfect surface for the scooters to go back to the station. Averaging 40 kph everyone in the station was surprised to see us pop up before supper started. Wednesday the final big field trip is planned, we will set up camp near the coast, 130 km away from the station and stay there for 3 days. In that time we will service the two stations there and set one new one up at breid bay right on the edge of the ice shelf.

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The Plateau


BLOG 5 02/12/2018

Tuesday we were a bit hungover from the failed expedition of the day before. Since there was no chance of going out in the field that day, we worked on the active sampling installations. We decided to run a test for a few days first to see if everything operates as it should. A few days ago I discovered the ambient temperature sensor on one of the instrument was broken, it’s not strictly necessary in order to sample but we need the pressure and temperature data to calculate accurate concentrations. Since I had some spare time on my hands the sensor was disassembled from the machine and I took it to the electrical ‘shop to figure out what was causing the trouble. The broken part was quickly identified and the colleagues in Ghent managed to order it and dropped it off with a scientist arriving at the station next week Tuesday. It’s not exactly next day delivery but still, not too bad for one of the most remote regions on earth.

Wednesday we had a quick meeting with Alain; we would try to reach the plateau again on Thursday but first we had to adjust the poles a little bit since he thought it’s better to drill them 1 meter into the ice and have the wooden board, which keeps them from sinking, closer to the ice surface. Again, all cases where filled with all the bottles we need for the exchange and installation. There are a lot! Empty ones, clean filters, backups, and that is just sampling material. We also needed to bring screwdrivers, shovels, chainsaws; we checked everything multiple times as we can’t risk forgetting anything or having the expedition aborted by a broken part. Check, double check, and check again. The next day the quick breakfast was followed by preparing lunch for the day, loading the Hilux and departure! We departed early, it is only a 55km drive (:-) .... from webmaster) but the Hilux averages around 15kph, not exactly highway speeds, because of the rubber tracks and the rough terrain. However, it is much more comfortable than a skidoo since you’re warm, protected from the wind and it’s possible to have a conversation. We even managed to take a small nap! The first hours passed quite fast and we arrived at the first site where we would replace the filters. However the poles where not there! Apparently, we made a slight navigational mistake (oops!) which was corrected quickly after which we got the three poles in our sights! Conditions are very different here compared to the valley next to the station! The katabatic wind is constant and ice is deposited immediately on everything staying still for more than a minute, including ourselves! It are difficult conditions to do fieldwork but with the aid of Henri and Manu and some perseverance, we were able to finish everything in around one hour. On to the next one, 20 km further up into the plateau, we would install a new station at an altitude of almost 2400m. Everybody warned us about the conditions there and they were right. Blazing winds combined with -25°C hit you in the face like a hammer the moment you open the door. Completely covered with balaclava, ski goggles and our thickest jackets we went to work! Manu and Henry started drilling while I mounted the sample holders to the poles and Stefania did the snow sampling. Installing the poles into their holes went quite easy thanks to the preparation. Despite the hard work and the body generating enough heat, I did manage to get some cold burn on my cheeks while working face first in the wind to secure all material in place. After taking some quick pictures, we were all very happy to be back in the Hilux, success! Time for celebration tea!

12 hours after departing, we were welcomed back by the station beautifully reflecting the low sun and Christine, the cook, who had kept 4 plates with fish and rice aside for us! Not the average day at the office, thanks to everyone involved! Friday and Saturday where quite calm. As there were some works happening to our measurement shelter we couldn’t run any active sampling. Instead, we took the time to wrestle ourselves through the enormous amount of instruments Alexander from the KMI/RMI has installed here. Some needed complete reinstallation, some calibration and some just a ‘gentle tap’ to get them going again. Also we saw some other people than the 24 currently living in the station as a plane arrived with some supplies. It was a Twin Otter this time and it’s always nice to go and see the plane takeoff up close. In the afternoon of Saturday, 2 weeks in already, we did the final fine-tuning and started with the active sampling. The high volume sampler will run for one week continuously taking into account the wind direction and speed, and will collect around 2000m3 of air. For our weekly recreational activity on Sunday, Aymar, the water engineer, and I went out on Nordic ski’s to do a 16km tour to Teltet, a mountain nearby, and back. It was a nice relief after a busy week to just ski with nothing on the mind, under a bright sun and a slight breeze. For sure, one shouldn’t underestimate the intensity of this sport, the French fries for diner where more than welcome! We are ready for week 3 on the Antarctic.

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