Blog

To the Plateau

(17-12-2019)

Since last trip we managed to get 4 sample sites done at once and as the one near the station was already serviced the first week we were here, only the 2 sites on the Antarctic Plateau remain. However, for those 2 the weather conditions need to be excellent as only then it is possible to work for an hour outside. Since the weather by the end of last week was far from prefect (read +10m/s winds and whiteouts) it gave me some time to work on the second new addition to the project this year.

A prototype that will allow us to monitor changes in the atmosphere during the year in contrast to giving the average composition of a complete year like the passive samplers do. It took some work but we managed to install it on the roof of the southern ‘Atmos’ shelter where most atmospheric measurement instruments are installed. I already can’t wait to see if it will survive winter.

After the weekend the weather promised to change, this gave us a window to go into the field. The Antarctic Plateau is a special place. It is the largest continental plateau in the world, stretching from the area around the South Pole to most parts of East Antarctica. The average elevation is about 3000m! To reach it you need to drive southwards from the station and cross the Sør Rondane mountain range via the Gunnestadbreen. A huge glacier which in fact is a very deep fjord covered by a several kilometer-thick ice sheet. If it were to melt you would be able sail here by cruise ship! (That is if there was still any harbor remaining after sea level rose 60m because of the meltwater) The thick ice layer creeping down against the mountains creates huge crevasses which can easily fit a complete Prinoth tractor. You don’t want to wander off the established GPS track here.

Driving to the top of the glacier already brings you to 2200m of elevation and this is were our first site south of the station is located. The area here is still sheltered by some rocks and mountains, so weather here tends to be quite calm. This is changes once you drive further south, and you enter the factual Plateau area. It is an impressive, huge, ice plane with absolutely nothing and stretches as far as the eye can see (and further). The wind is solely katabatic and is always blowing snow which freezes every uncovered piece of skin and fills everything with snow the moment you expose it. It is truly another world! Going 2000km further south will get you to the South Pole (don’t forget to set your compass to the geographic south!), take a left turn a little before halfway and the highest point of the region is reached; Dome Fuji at 3700m. This is were Alain will go to with a few Japanese scientists around the end of this year. We however, will stop at our most southern sample location, at 2400m of elevation. Quite surprised, we found everything intact. After a year of brutal conditions, the metal poles were still at their original height and pointing straight up, making us slightly proud of the job we did last year. Finishing this site meant the end of our field campaign for this season on which we can look back as successful! After a quick group picture, we went back down to the station marking our track as safe with bright red flags. At least Alain and the Japanese won’t get lost during the first 70 kilometers of their trip. Only one more week to go here, time to wrap everything up!

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To the coast

(09-12-2019)

Saturday 9 a.m. sharp is when our convoy departed for the trip to the coast, known as ‘the traverse’. The destination is a GPS point before the Frank-Kenny and Tison ice rises 160km from the station. It’s a small convoy when compared to last year. The glaciology team only consists of 3 people and a field guide taking with them; a workshop container (20 feet equipped with a generator, some tools and benches), a 10 feet “cabuz” which is a living quarter and has a small diner table and a basic kitchenette inside and 3 skidoos. All of this is pulled across the ice by a Prinoth tractor. For our project however, we like to be quick and mobile so, our group of 3 including Manu, the field guide, is traveling by Hilux with a small trailer on which all Styrofoam boxes for snow and ice sampling were tied.

The departure for the traverse is always something special as everyone from the station comes by for a hug and to say goodbye. We’ll only be gone for a few days, opposed to the Glaciology team who will stay in the field for little over two weeks! The actual drive was quite uneventful, 14 hours in a Hilux driving on a white snow plane is about as fun as it sounds, furthermore for some reason the mechanics took the radio out of the truck... The next morning the glaciologists packed up their part of the camp, a few hugs and final words were exchanged and off they went! They were going to the Tison ice rise west of our location and soon we lost communication with them. From that moment we were really on our own! Not much later we left our tiny campsite consisting of 3 tents (1 for the toilet and 2 for sleeping) as well, there is lots of work ahead.

To minimize the risk, it is best to keep the total time in the field as short as possible. The planning consisted of visiting 2 sites near to the ocean and drilling a firn/ice core on Sunday and visiting the more southern sites on the way back, Monday. Last year we had 4 days for all this! The bad weather from the morning quickly made place for a clear sky and a burning sunshine. It took three hours of driving to reach the site north on Frank Kenny ice rise were all equipment was like left last year. A new addition for this year is that we’ll drill 2 cores to 3 meters depth in the ice. It was a bit clumsy in the beginning but after a few tries we got the hang of it, until a short moment of inattention shut down the operation. The power cable of the motor got caught on the drive shaft of the drill and it broke the wires. 15 minutes of swearing and fiddling with a Leatherman later I managed to reattach the connector to a good piece of cable. Back in business! Even in a relatively short ice core like this one you can clearly see the layering of the ice and the light shining out of the drill hole is an amazing hue of blue!

As fresh snow gets deposited every year drilling an ice core gives information on the concentration of chemicals in function of time. With this 3-meter core we estimate that there is information from 10 to 15 years back in time! Nothing when compared to the deepest ice core drilled, 2.7 million years! Drilling: done, to the next site! Last year at Breid Bay, only 5km from the ocean, we installed a passive site knowing this location is a risky one as there is lots of ice drift and accumulation. Upon arriving the snow accumulation was 1.5m almost burying the installation! Retrieving the samples and breaking down the site was the only sensible decision. Fun fact though; as the ice layer gets thinner it will move faster. Because of this the poles at Breid Bay (ice thickness of only 70m) were almost 40m from the GPS location of last year.

Monday promised to be another busy day! 2 sites to recover including one on the southern point of the ice rise. As last year there was a lot of snow accumulation as well, we feared it might have been buried in snow by now. But we were lucky! The shelter of the sorbent tubes was barely sticking out of the snow! After recovering the samples Manu and I put a new pole in place with the samplers at 2m height so next year they’ll be easy to find. The final site of the coastal expedition is near Romnoes mountain already quite a bit on the way back to the station. As Stefania measured a lot of background in the samples from this area, a rock sample of the mountain was necessary. This meant crossing a blue ice field filled with crevasses, but the mighty Hilux just sailed right across it. Exhausted we arrived back at the station at midnight where Christine kept 3 plates of pasta carbonara aside for us, a welcome change after eating dry food for 3 days.

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Danger !

(02-12-2019)

As Antarctica can be a hostile environment it is important to know how to prevent certain dangerous situations and how to act when something goes wrong. Therefor everyone active in the field receives an intensive 2-day training.

Monday, we started with a medical training where we learned to give the first aid for minor injuries to how to manage severe accidents as well as preventing frostbite. The day was ended with a simulation exercise where Frank (Pattyn) pretended he fell from the ridge and we had to improvise a way to immobilize his back, neck and leg while protecting him from the cold with what we had until the rescue team arrived! Thanks to some inflatable mattresses, down jackets and lots of duct tape Frank was able to survive and recovered miraculously. Under the monitoring of the station’s doc, Barbara, we passed the test.

The next day, Tuesday, was just an exhibition of the amazing beauty of Antarctica. While learning basic mountaineering knots and techniques to free someone out of a crevasse, a crack in the ice formed by its movement which can be up to 30m of depth, we of course got to spend some time in one. It’s funny how such a dangerous feature can be so breathtakingly beautiful at the same time. The afternoon was spent on the seat of a skidoo refreshing some driving techniques on ice and steep slopes after which we set up our tent and lit the stove. What a beautiful day.

Of course, we’re not here on holidays and there is some work to be done. Wednesday Stefania and I fired up the active samplers which will collect dust and organic chemicals until the station closes in March. After this we decided to go to the closest passive sampling site 5 km from the station. In the valley in front of the station there is only about 15-20 cm of snow accumulation each year, this makes that after two years of being out there the samplers sunk for about 40cm. Still high enough to easily find them in the white landscape. At some other stations such as at the coast accumulation rates are way higher so let’s cross fingers we find those as easily as we did this one.

During all our scientific work that day we were not alone! There was a camera operator, Xavier, carefully following our footsteps, shooting for a documentary about the station which will be aired this summer on RTBF (and probably VRT as well). Being here for the second year means the management starts to put some more trust in you. We can go around without having a guide with us all the time and I also could take Eric and Thore, the 2 PhD students working on Frank’s glaciology team to a site nearby where they did some snow density measurements to improve their models. Frank and his team are here to close the Mass2Ant project of the ULB and will be performing some final non-destructive measurements (so no drilling but radars and snow micro pens) on the ice rises near the coast. They gave a very nice overview of what the project achieved to the stations crew talking about the ice sheet’s dynamics and how the continent undergoes mass change.

Since Stefania’s frigo boxes arrived (by a freshly serviced and painted DC-3 plane) we will be joining that team to go to the coastal areas. Departure Saturday! As the sun is always above the horizon by now and there are no visual reference points in that area of Antarctica, being there is an alienating experience. You step into this huge white world where both space and time seem to be relative. Anyhow I’ll report on that trip later.

See you,
Preben

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