Tuesday, 28 December 2010

After Christmas

Now we are already halfway between Christmas and New Year’s Eve. Christmas Eve has been a rather quiet day – everybody did his work but took it the easy way. In the evening there was nothing specially arranged. I missed this because at home I would have been singing together with my family around the Christmas tree and would have gone either in the afternoon with my children to church or to the late-night mess. But, we had a big Christmas dinner on 25 December. At 3:30 in the morning the traverse team returned from the coast with the 11 containers which they unloaded from the Mary Arctica. During the day on 25 we unloaded the most important things from the containers (mainly the food and instruments). There is also a Christmas tree standing now at the station. For the Christmas dinner David, our formidable chef de cuisine, created a delicious menu. We were sitting together until late. But it was really strange to have the sun shining at midnight – it was absolutely clear sky and it was so light – it was difficult to get this traditional Christmas feeling of the shining lights of the Christmas tree and the crèche and of all the other lights making the dark night so specially enlightened at our latitudes.

The 26 December was again an absolute Antarctic summer day – not any cloud appeared and wind stayed calm. After the Christmas dinner, everybody slept long. In addition, it was a Sunday, and on Sundays, the main works are resting. So, I took my time to relax and to read and to write emails or to skype with my family. This is really a huge advantage – via skype I can see my wife and children and they can see me and we can talk so easily to each other. This helps a lot to forget a bit the fact that I am for a long time so far away.

The last two days I started to set up the TEOM in the southern shelter. This instrument will measure the mass concentration of particles in the lowest atmospheric layer. There are three main components I have to connect with each other via several data cables, plastic or stainless steel tubings. It is not easy not to mess this up. Today Ilyr, one of our carpenters and mechanics, came and made a special waterproof and insulated hole in the roof of the shelter through which all the necessary tubings are fed. The next step will be to put a specially designed inlet on the main tubing of the TEOM on the roof. The whole inlet-system will then have to be fixed to the roof in order to withstand the winds. The weather is changing now slowly. There are more and more clouds – it started with cirrus clouds and now it is nearly overcast with altocumulus and altostratus clouds. The wind also returned and although the temperature is not too cold (around -8 degC), it is now markedly less comfortable to be outside. The images show me on the roof of the southern shelter, installing another inlet for the aethalometer, the sunphotometer pointing to the sun, and some very nice cirrus clouds.

Thursday, 23 December 2010

Work and life at the station

The last days I have been busy with setting up the first two instruments – the aethalometer and the sunphotometer. Besides of this there was an introduction in security matters for all new team members. This included a driving school with the skidoos. On Tuesday, Sanne our field guide, went with us and the skidoos into the field. We drove around the Utsteinen nunatak. From first view the area seems to be quite flat, no problem. However, the terrain reveals a lot going up and down, fields of blue ice, hard and soft snow, driving along a slope – we received a good impression how it feels like driving in Antarctica. If you go too fast – fast you’re grounded. In addition, we took ‘crampons’ with us to walk on the ice and up steep slopes. The whole time we had impressive views of all sides of the Utsteinen nunatak with its wind scoops of snow and ice. Together with a clear blue sky we nearly felt like tourists. On the image you can see the southeast side of the nunatak and a view on the station from there.

Just before the driving school started, I mounted on the roof of the scientific shelter the inlet for the aethalometer. The day before the wind was too strong to work safely on this roof. Now the aethalometer is in operation and if no failures occur, it can turn whole year round. On Wednesday I installed the sunphotometer on the top of the roof of the station. The day was perfect for this – no wind, comfortable temperatures, sun. Sun is needed for the correct installation of the instrument because for the measurements it has to point directly to the sun. It was a great feeling sitting there on top of the roof, plenty of sun, clear sky and wide views, warm – Club Med is nothing compared to this. However, there’s not much time to enjoy this – the instrument needs a bit special care until it is correctly adjusted. After all, today Thursday, both instruments are working and I can go on to the next instrument. And in the meantime Stefan, the colleague of the hydrological cycle project, and I went to the automatic weather station, which is installed a bit further away, to exchange its data logger.

Life at the station is distinctly different from two years ago. Sleeping in a normal bedroom and a normal bed instead of in a tent and sleeping bag makes much of a difference. Also, there are now toilets and washing rooms with showers. The toilets are sometimes closed because the bacteria need some time to recover and to become hungry again. For this period we have the Antarctic-style toilets (no need for a more detailed description). Having a shower in the evening is really great. There is enough warm water from the water heating panels on the roof. It is no problem to have every second day a shower. However, this does not include long-lasting showers ;-) Besides of this, the communication with the outer world is no problem anymore – internet and phone calls are nearly always possible. Tomorrow it is Christmas Eve – no plans yet. I suppose there will be a queue for the one ‘public’ satellite telephone. Others have their own satellite phone with them. We will see.

Monday, 20 December 2010

The first day at the Station

Before we left on Saturday I visited the Kirstenbos National Botanical Garden near Cape Town. This fantastic garden is really worth visiting more than once. It is perfectly situated – in a natural amphitheatre where the Cape Town mountains form a perfect shelter against cold wind, but provide warmth and more than normal precipitation. The plants and trees you can see there are impressing. South Africa is the homeland of one of the Earth’s six main plant kingdoms.

After this visit I waited with the others in the hotel until we went to the airport. We left Cape Town Saturday night; the Ilyushin 76 took off at 23:30 local time. The machine was fully packed, about 10 tons of cargo and around 45 passengers with destination the different Antarctic stations in Dronning Maud Land – Germans, Japanese, Indians, Belgians and others. The flight took around 6 hours and we landed Monday morning at half past four, local time which is Greenwich Mean Time.

It was rather fair weather and the sun shining – uncommonly high already for this early morning for Middle Europeans. Wind was not strong. After unloading and repacking our cargo into the Basler-67, we left only two and a half hours later for Princess Elisabeth station. Everybody of us slept during the 90 minutes flight – tired from the Ilyushin flight and otherwise the cabin of the Basler is not pressurized, so that the oxygen content is lower. At Princess Elisabeth station the members of the team already there waited at the landing strip and welcomed us. The weather at Utsteinen was very nice – nearly completely blue sky, almost no wind and comfortable temperatures. At the sky some snow petrels swallowed along – nice to see.

That sunday I only took care of my cargo boxes and checked that the instruments had arrived in good condition. Towards the evening cloudiness increased and the wind became stronger and snow started to blow – you should be able to see this on the image, the slight white blur just above the ground.

So – what’s with living at the station: Sleeping is not anymore necessary in tents – however, who want to can do it. Maybe I will do this later. But for now, the comfort in the sleeping rooms is tempting enough – a real bed (no sleeping bags anymore), heated rooms, all stuff sorted neatly in the cupboard ;-) I sleep in one of the 4-bed rooms in the wooden annex of the station, sharing it with a colleague from Germany. In the main station, many things have changed – bath rooms and toilets can now be used for example. Water treatment is working and the bacteria responsible for cleaning up our waste water are scrutinized in a special lab.

It is really a good feeling to be back again. Seeing again this unique landscape with the Utsteinen nunatak and the variation between mountains and the flat white ice surface reaching to the horizon – this is really a very special place. In addition, the steady change of the interplay between the light, the snow and the mountains is so fascinating – at Utsteinen the eye will very rarely be bored. On the contrary to my last stay, now I will have sun (if there are no clouds) 24 hours. It is funny to see the sun disappearing behind the mountains west of the nunatak at around 22:45 and just 20 minutes later the sun appears back on the east side of the nunatak.

Friday, 17 December 2010

Departure to Antarctica soon

Now I am in Cape Town, South Africa. I enjoy the last day before I will leave this saturday, 18 December, to Antarctica. I will not be alone on this flight - for the Belgium station there are 13 people - 6 scientists, the station manager, engineers, technicians, a cook and a doctor. Tomorrow we will be at the airport around 8pm and the flight will leave something between 9 and 10 pm. It will be a 6 hours flight with the Ilyushin 76, a great cargo transporter, to the Russian Antarctic Novo air base. After the arrival on sunday morning most of us will leave on the same day to Utsteinen, to the Princess Elisabeth station. Because we have a lot of cargo, a small group will stay in Novo for one day and will come to Utsteinen thus a bit later, with the remaining cargo.
I am really looking forward to be again in Antarctica and I am curious how it will be this time.