Tuesday, 25 November 2014

Journey to Princess Elisabeth Station and first works

Our flight to Antarctica took place indeed in the night of 18 to 19 November. At 23h30 Cape Town time the usual Ilyushin took off for the 5h45 flight to Antarctica. The flight is more or less straight southwards, 4200 km, to the Novolazarevskaya Air base. The flight is organized by ALCI (Antarctic Logistics Centre International), an organization supported by the nations operating stations in and around East Antarctica and especially in the Dronning Maud Land area. From Novo it would still be around 2000 km to South Pole. 

Quentin and I and the Ilyushin at unload at Novo and our pile of cargo

In order to get to the individual stations, there are two small Basler propeller aircrafts. They can carry around 2.5 tons of passenger/cargo combined. As we were 13 persons and had quite a lot of cargo, we had to split into two groups. The lucky ones (including me and Quentin) had a flight the same day afternoon. Nevertheless, we had to wait 9 hours at Novo because the Basler aircrafts were first flying to other stations. Which stations are served first or later and when exactly depends mainly on weather (at Novo and at the respective station), distance, and the obligatory resting times for the pilots. In the beginning of the austral summer season, the weather is relatively unstable, i.e. fair and bad weather for flying changes often and flight plans change by hour. At Novo there is not much to do. You are assigned to containers which are nicely furnished with beds, heating and (European norm) power plugs for the laptops, tablets, smartphones and other gadgets people have nowadays always with them. There is also a large special container for taking the meals or to have a hot coffee with biscuits. Most of us slept most of the time. 

The Basler aircraft at Utsteinen air strip
Before departure, we had to load the nearly two tons of cargo into the Basler and off we went. It is a 1h45 flight from Novo to Princess Elisabeth Station, for the 450 km distance. From the plane the vast stretches of white, sometimes the cracks of the glaciers and sometimes some rocks sticking out can be admired. The specific shape of the mountains around Princess Elisabeth made it easy to recognize that we were approaching our final destination. At 17h30 local time, i.e., CET time as in Belgium, the Basler landed at Utsteinen air strip. Quick welcome, unloading, transfer to the station (still 2 km away) and there we are. The Basler returned immediately – they had another flight to do that day from Novo. On that Wednesday we had the introduction to the station and Quentin and I had time for a first look on the instruments which have been at the station during the unmanned period. 

The crevasse where we made the usual training.Beautiful.
The next day, we made a first planning of the work we will carry out the coming almost four weeks. Around noon, the group left behind at Novo arrived. After lunch, our group of 13 was summoned for the usual field training. As weather was perfect – almost no wind, blue clear sky, ‘only’ around -20°C, crevasse training was programmed. This means that everybody of us is going down –secured with a rope- in a crevasse and the others are trained in the different methods to get somebody out of a crevasse. There is no large crevasse in the near vicinity of the station and therefore it is a 12 km drive on skidoos (snow mobiles) to a ‘suitable’ one. Dealing with ropes, knots, carabiners, taking snow mobiles to help is on the menu. It was good to do a bit hand work at these cold temperatures. On Friday morning we had another training, now on the snow mobiles. After an introduction on the mechanics (and in particular what the scientists as suspected non-adepts of mechanics should better avoid to do), we drove out for some rides on slopes. Up and down, ever more steep. Have confidence in your skidoo and behave smoothly on your skidoo, that’s the message. 

 Skidoo training and a balloon launch

In the afternoon we had finally time to look more in detail to our instruments. We restarted some of them, checked others, and also made a radiosonde balloon launch. These balloon launches serve to know the vertical distribution of temperature, humidity, pressure, wind and wind direction, what is very useful for interpretation of the meteorological dynamic conditions. Saturday, Sunday and today, Quentin and I were busy with starting up instruments, testing them, and doing more balloon launches. I will write next time more on the individual instruments, not all of them making us completely happy. However, we are lucky with the weather. No storm in sight, what means that we can go on undisturbed with our works outside and on the station’s roof.

Monday, 17 November 2014

GO for another season at Princess Elisabeth station

Cape Town - View to Robben Island
View on Camps Bay Beach near Cape Town
Since one week Princess Elisabeth station is opened for this season’s Belgian Antarctic Research expedition. The first team arrived on Sunday, 9 November at Utsteinen and has been and is working on bringing the station back to full operational status . The second team with 9 scientists, the doctor, a field guide, a journalist and a teacher (whose class won the IPF Polar Quest competition) is already in Cape Town, waiting for the flight into Antarctica. Most probably that flight will happen tomorrow night, with take-off on 18 November 23:15 local time. If everything goes well, everybody of us will be at the station already on Wednesday. Otherwise, some of us have to stay one night at the Russian Air base at Novolazarevskaya. 
From the nine scientists 5 are from the ICECON project, one is the InBev-Baillet Latour Fund winner (BENEMELT project), one is working on the SMEAIS project, and two are for the atmospheric research programme of the Royal Meteorological Institute – Quentin Laffineur and I. The first thing we will have to do upon arrival at the station is to check the status of the five instruments which were staying there over the austral winter months. They have been operational until mid-May and were literally in the freezer afterwards because of a general power outage of the station. We will check if they have encountered any damage, do necessary tests for proper operation and put them back into operation if these tests are positive. In the air cargo travelling with us, there are four more instruments which will be re-installed by Quentin and me. One is the good old sunphotometer, which is returning for its seventh consecutive measurement season (it travels always back and forth because of its necessary yearly calibration in Europe). The second instrument is the Brewer ozone spectrophotometer which had to be brought back last season because of necessary repairs concerning its power module and for a calibration. The nephelometer had also to be repaired and will hopefully run again continuously, including the austral winter months. And finally, as last season, we will have a cloud condensation nuclei counter of the TROPOS institute in Leipzig, Germany. 
The first two mentioned instruments will be installed on the station’s roof, and the latter two in the southern scientific shelter. For a description of all our instruments, have a look at the link to the right (BELATMOS project description). In addition, we will check all instruments of the HYDRANT project, dig one or two snow profiles as usual, and we will install a new radiosonde ground station for launching radiosondes. The radiosonde programme is a collaboration of RMI with the International Polar Foundation and the institute for ‘Wald, Schnee und Landschaft’ of the ETH Z├╝rich, Switzerland. We will surely write more on this later. Altogether, this makes up for a nicely filled programme for the around 30 days of our stay at Princess Elisabeth station and I am happy that Quentin of our Ozone-UV-Aerosol group of RMI accompanies me this season.