Sunday, 15 December 2013

Instruments up, Instruments down

The last week was characterised by severe instrument interventions. Monday and Tuesday kept us busy with the extension of the mast of the automatic weather station. Monday I dug out an almost 2m deep hole around the mast. This depth was necessary to reach the top of the battery container. The batteries were pulled out and put into a new container which finally was placed on top of the old one. These batteries kept the weather station running now since almost five years, and they are still in good shape. It was a funny feeling being down in this hole and even when standing upright I could not look out. It was also a very warm, calm day and during digging, the warm down jacket was not necessary. Around noon, the air temperature in 2m height was even +3°C !  However, down there in the hole it was freezy. The aluminium mast had still the temperature of the surrounding snow/ice – around -20°C. My sweaty leather working gloves would freeze stuck immediately when touching the mast. The following day two colleagues –Francois (on the image in the hole) and Craig- helped me to extend the mast. First, disconnecting he upper part and laying it softly down on boxes in order to avoid ground-touching. Then we put the extension on the old bottom part and lifted finally the top part into the extension. Now the meteorological instruments are again in a height of around 4m. Afterwards, the hole needed to be filled. It was much more wind that day and the drifting snow helped to smoothen the surface around the mast. The days after I did detailed checks on the Brewer, the nephelometer and the cloud condensation nuclei counter (CCN). After many checks and tests Erik and I did in the heart of the Brewer instrument, it was clear that there is some malfunctioning of an electronic control board. And this we cannot fix here, why it will return already with me. The nephelometer also has a serious problem and very probably some parts of the optical interior have to be exchanged. As I do not have them here, it will also return with me. It’s more than a pity that these instruments have to return, but things like these can happen. On the other side, we could fix the pump problem of the CCN and it is working fine since Friday afternoon. So, it’s an up and down here. Apart from the instruments – the landscape around Utsteinen is always fascinating. That it is Antarctic summer is also marked by the snow petrels which are now gliding much more often and in higher number in the wind around our ridge. These birds bring up their chicks here in the mountains (far away from predators), but fetch the food at the coast. The coming days starts already the preparation for our departure.

Saturday, 7 December 2013

Summer at Utsteinen

Time has passed in the meantime. The windy weather of the first week made place for more calm days with a lot of sunshine. Temperature however is still cold, around -10 to -15°C. Yesterday St Nicolas passed. My little family provided me with some self-made items and chocolate to celebrate this day. That was nice and I loved it. Otherwise, we would all just be too busy with our work and a day like that passes easily without anything special to it. I also had a skype call with a school class in the UK, of 8 to 10 year old pupils, on the occasion of Antarctic Day (normally 1st of December). They asked lots of questions on the Antarctic or on how daily life has to be imagined here. One question was also if I built already a snowman. I had to admit, that no. Too busy with work apparently. However, the snow here is too dry and would not be sticky enough. But we could sculpture something with blocks of snow-ice. Anyway, many things have been done. The pyrometer and the precipitation radar are back in operation on the roof. Also the Sun photometer is back on its place on the very top of the station. Its elegant movements to point to the sun and to make measurements make the others often ask me what it is for. In the aerosol shelter, the cloud condensation nuclei counter from Leipzig has been starting its measurements. It seems that there are not many particles in our Utsteinen air which are capable to form cloud droplets. But I need to do some more tests on this. My problem child at the moment is the Brewer ozone spectrophotometer. There is apparently an issue with a turning micrometer, which adjusts some important parts of the optics. Until now we haven’t found out what exactly the problem is, and the instrument keeps Erik and me busy. Last Wednesday morning the expedition team to the coast left (see group image above). They will be doing research in the field for around 10 to 12 days. To get to know what they are looking for, it is best to visit their blog. One of the last days, when wind was almost none, I went around 1 km upwind of the weather station and digged, like last years, a snow pit of 1m depth in order to characterize the different layers of ice (crystal size, habit, density, temperature…). The view was great from there and in weather conditions like that it’s nice to work outside ;-) . Next week, the extension of the mast of the weather station is on my agenda, as is another snow pit, and hopefully putting back into operation the Brewer and the nephelometer.

Tuesday, 26 November 2013

Being at Utsteinen and Princess Elisabeth again

Since Friday late afternoon I am now back at Utsteinen, at Princess Elisabeth station. It’s nice to be here again. The flight with the Ilyushin went without issues. The weather at Novo Air base was very windy and by times the visibility became worse and we thought that we might even be stuck in Novo. But it cleared up again and two hours after arrival in Novo, Reinhard, Lionel and I took off with the Twin Otter, direction Utsteinen. As the Twin Otter cannot carry as much payload as a Basler, we had to leave most of the cargo at Novo – and therefore we decided also that two of us, Nicolas and Christophe would stay in Novo. Unfortunately, they had to stay until Monday afternoon in Novo because of the overall bad weather there. In the meantime, I had a look to the bunch of instruments I have deployed here. The Brewer (ozone  spectrophotometer) and the sunphotometer are well and are waiting for some calm weather to be installed on the roof again. The wind is too strong at the moment and working on the roof is not really to be recommended. The UV-Vis radiation measurement box on the roof had to be dismounted for a check of the datalogger inside. After this, we mounted it again on the roof and it is operational again. The instruments of the Hydrant project of KULeuven are also in the pipeline to be started up again. The ceilometer has warmed up inside and routine checks have been done. Yesterday around noon we installed it on the roof and it is operational again now. The precipitation radar and the pyrometer (cloud temperature) still need to be checked. Some pyrometer replacement items arrived just yesterday with the flight from Novo and today Erik and I made the necessary tests inside. The weather station is also well. But beginning of November there was a huge storm which brought around 40 cm of snowfall accumulation within a few days. The weather station instruments are therefore only 215 cm above ground – which is probably not enough for a whole next year-round of measurements. Therefore, we have already foreseen in our cargo a special mast extension set, with which we can lift the meteo instrumentation up again. I also checked the aerosol instruments in the special shelter. The aethalometer, TEOM and the particle counter are operational again. After the 6 months without power and in the cold I had to check if they are safe to be started up again (snow inside, cleaning of parts, replacement of filters, replacement of the cooling fan of the aethalometer, checking the tubings, etc). The laser particle sizer needs a bit more care – the laser window has to be cleaned regularly in order to have enough laser power arriving in the measurement chamber. Yesterday I could bring this laser power already high enough for sufficiently good measurements, but it needs further cleaning. Unfortunately, the nephelometer (light scattering by particles) does not want to start up again. The reason is not clear yet – I will take it inside the station where I can investigate the electronics and other parts more comfortably than in the shelter.

Thursday, 21 November 2013


So, we are still in Cape Town. The Ilyushin flight normally planned passed Tuesday will happen only tomorrow, Friday morning. Take-off at 8am CET. Likewise with the flight of the first team destined for the Belgian station – they stayed 7 days there. For us it will have been 5 days. This delay is due to the bad weather in Antarctica – it’s not too stormy there at the moment, but too cloudy, snowfall and bad visibility. Also at the locations of the individual national research stations the weather is not the best and all the feeder flights with the small propeller aircrafts are also delayed. So, what have we been doing here? In the beginning we have been at Cape Town airport’s cargo storage hall. There we had to re-pack some large boxes into smaller ones. And we checked that all our cargo sent from Europe arrived well. The rest of the time we spend with bit of tourism. Or with work (long-distance telework isn’t it?). Today was a perfect southern summer day and our group of five decided to go up to the Lion’s Head (or Leeukop in Afrikaans), just here opposite of Table Mountain. It’s 669 m asl and from the rocky top the view is really great. You have it all around – the Ocean, Cape Town, its beaches, Table Mountain, the mountain range of the Twelve Apostels, Signal Hill – really to be recommended. From top to bottom of the images: Reinhard pointing to the mountain and Lionel besides of him, then Leeukop itself, me, and all five of us (Christophe second from left, Nicolas to the very right). So, tomorrow morning at 5 CET we will leave the hotel for the airport, landing in Antarctica 14 CET. Most probably we will then fly with a Twin Otter to Utsteinen to the Belgian Princess Elisabeth station the same day. The next post will hopefully be from Utsteinen.

Thursday, 14 November 2013

Back to the clean atmosphere

This saturday I will leave again for the Antarctic. Before arriving there, however, I will stay for transit in Cape Town, South Africa, as usual. It will be my fifth time already at the Belgian research station Princess Elisabeth. On saturday, we will be four scientists to leave from Brussels (all working for Belgian projects, but no Belgian, this is so typical for this welcoming country), and one field guide (Swiss) will join us in London. This season I first will have to check all instruments if they are still fine or if there is any damage after the long period of non-operation. Again, I will be responsible also for the meteo-cloud-precipitation instrumentation of the Hydrant project of KU Leuven. And also, as usual, there will be something new - this time it will be a cloud condensation nuclei counter from the Institute of tropospheric research, TROPOS, in Leipzig, Germany. This instrument will measure the concentration of particles being able to form cloud droplets (not every particle is being able to do that). It will give us valuable information to link aerosol properties to cloud and precipitation patterns. Further, the possibility to conduct filter sampling of particles for later chemical analysis will be explored and later in the summer season, first radiosonde balloon launches will be undertaken in collaboration with the Swiss federal institute for 'Wald, Schnee und Landschaft' ( and the International Polar Foundation. So, I will try to keep this blog update on a regular basis. The images above shows the typically polluted urban atmosphere of Brussels with rather low visibility and the clean atmosphere in Antarctica with a view up to the Romnoes mountain (to the right on the image), around 60 km away from the station.

Friday, 31 May 2013

Data, winter, current work

It is now three months into this Antarctic winter, time to write a bit about what is going on within our Belatmos project. We had a look into the data of the Brewer spectrophotometer and the image  shows the time series of total ozone and of the calculated UV index for the summer season 2012/13 at Utsteinen. Total ozone data can be calculated both from direct sun (cloud-free conditions; direct sun rays) and zenith sky (also cloudy atmosphere, diffuse sunlight) observations. There is a systematic high bias for the zenith sky values over the direct sun values. The direct sun values should be taken as the more accurate ones. When looking at the absolute total ozone values, there was no particularly low value this season compared to the season before. This was because the weaker than in former years Antarctic ozone hole recovered relatively fast this season and no remainder of the Antarctic ozone hole moved above Utsteinen. In November and during the first half of December 2012, total ozone values (direct sun) were rather high with values above 320 Dobson Units. Afterwards, total ozone fluctuated around 270 to 310 DU. Overall, the calculated UV index therefore indicated moderate-high to high levels of potentially hazardous UV-B radiation. Matching the time of highest sun elevation, the UV index peaked around christmas. 

With another season behind, the statistics for the aerosol optical depth from the Cimel sunphotometer can be updated. The aerosol optical depth (AOD) is a proxy for the total amount of aerosol in the atmosphere. The figure shows in blue the average AOD values (with standard deviation) from the sunphotometer for all summer seasons since February 2009. Most obvious are the very low AOD values below 0.03. This means that the atmosphere is almost pristine. Values for Europe are at least one magnitude of order higher. Next pattern to be seen is the slight increase from the visible to the ultra-violet region. This gives an indication that sub-micron particles dominate, as smaller particles scatter light of shorter wavelengths more effectively. One can also calculate the Angstrom-exponent from the exponential regression of the AOD values between 440 and 870 nm. The higher it is, the smaller the aerosol particles. From our data so far, the average Angstrom exponent was 2.0 +/- 0.6, indicating a dominance of sub-micron particles. Why exactly the AOD value for 1020 nm is higher than the visible ones has to be checked, but one reason could be that in particular the 1020 nm channel is sensitive to cold temperatures and a correction might be necessary. In addition to the sunphotometer data, the figure shows in green the AOD derived from the UV-B measurements of a Brewer spectrohotometer (340 nm, same wavelength as sunphotometer). AOD values derived from the Brewer have in general a higher uncertainty than the sunphotometer ones, and thus have a higher detection limit. However, also the Brewer gives very low values for the total aerosol amount. 

Another nice example of the special Antarctic atmosphere is the total number concentration of particles. In winter, the concentration is often around 100 particles per cubic centimeter. It was particularly low beginning of April, as can be seen in the respective graph – around 15 particles (from 3 nm diameter and larger) per cm3. This translates to around 700 particles in absolute number, measured in one minute. These are almost clean room conditions ;-). And a nice example of the capability of the respective instrument, the condensation particle counter. These conditions lasted a few hours and the concentration increased afterwards to around 100. But there were already some more periods with such a low particle concentration. The highest concentrations since November were around 4000-5000 particles per cm3

However, luck stayed not with us. On 8 April winds were exceptionally strong with very high and massive blowing snow – at clear sky – and the LAS, the aethalometer and the nephelometer stopped communications with us. It is not clear what exactly happened, if there was too much snow intrusion via the tubings or into the shelter or a technical problem with the serial connectors. However, the condensation particle counter and the TEOM-FDMS continued their measurements without interruption. On 11 April there were again such conditions and the image above gives a good indication of the very strong blowing snow. And, more unfortunate, since 17 May, the whole station does not communicate anymore with us and it seems that the station lost power. This is a very pity because at the very same time there was the 36th Antarctic Treaty Consultative Meeting in Brussels ( 

The Belgian branch of the Association of Polar Early Career Scientists organised on 25/26 May a science fair on the occasion of the ATCM for the broader public ( There were many informations on Arctic and Antarctic research and on the particularities of the polar environment and what it makes so special. We contributed with a little game on ozone and UV. On the same weekend, my institute, the Royal Meteorological Institute of Belgium had together with our neighbour institutes (Space Aeronomy and Royal Observatory) Open Door Days. And we celebrated also 100 years of our institute. On this occasion I set up some general information on our research in Antarctica. In addition I set up the aethalometer to demonstrate its usefulness to measure the small, polluting particles from combustion and why we care about these special particles. Next on my agenda is to analyse the Antarctic data in order to present parts of it beginning of July in Davos, Switzerland, at the Davos Atmosphere and Cryosphere Assembly.