In the last four weeks I have frequently listened to Ella Fitzgerald’s velvety alto voice singing “Summertime”, accompanied by Louis Armstrong on the trumpet: often in the evenings, gazing at palm-lined beaches (just on a poster, of course) while on the treadmill, I can almost feel the shimmering summer heat. It’s summer, even in the gym at Neumayer Station III. But to be honest, the summer here wasn’t particularly “easy” at all…
We’ve now come to the end of two very busy months – the months of the so-called summer campaign.
Every summer, the ‘old ÜWIs’ (ÜWIs stands for overwinterers) and the ‘new ÜWIs’ share the station’s available rooms with the summer guests. These guests mainly fall into two categories: technicians and researchers. To create extra sleeping quarters, the engineers set up ‘emergency shelters’ outside the station. These are moveable housing containers – some of them in a 1970s shade of orange – that can be hauled on sledges. The entire station takes on the air of a youth hostel with bunk beds, two to six beds a room, nightly table football / table tennis tournaments and, of course, a ‘hostel father’. Here he’s called the FOM, which is short for field operations manager. This summer, Tim Heitland fulfilled this exciting role admirably, as expedition leader of the summer campaign.
In this mass of people, I realise that each of us has to demonstrate a considerable amount of tolerance and flexibility. In the summer here, personal space is as rare as fresh flowers in the Antarctic. Evening outings to explore the site are a welcome way to round out the day’s events.
The summer campaign means weeks of hard work, especially this year:
Due to the coronavirus situation, the number of summer guests has been reduced to a minimum. This means that, particularly for the technicians, there is a very full schedule to complete in an even shorter period of time. But maybe I should start from the beginning …
Handover of the ÜWIs’ duties
Shortly after our arrival, in glorious weather with no wind, and summery temperatures of around minus 10 degrees Celsius, the old ÜWIs gave us new ÜWIs an introduction to our duties. This sounds easy, but was actually a several-week-long process, since it involved observing our predecessors performing numerous steps and data analyses, as well as correcting errors (troubleshooting), which we then had to try to do ourselves. Almost all of us new ÜWIs had a notebook at the ready – mine has roughly 50 handwritten pages of notes in it already. In addition, there’s a type of Wiki for ÜWIs in the intranet here, to help us organise processes and look things up if necessary.
In retrospect, the handover phase was pretty stressful, because I have several different duties here that have very little to do with what I’ve done up to now as a surgeon. Along with blood and drinking-water analyses and monitoring the X-ray constancy, they include care and maintenance of the dental equipment and cleaning the hospital / drinking water lines, plus serving as station leader, hostel manager for the new ÜWIs and physician for the entire team.
From time to time, I also try my hand as a novice blogger: I set myself the goal of presenting the station and everything else here as vividly and realistically as possible in order to, on the one hand, provide essential information on the work here at Neumayer for potential applicants, and on the other, to give virus-weary readers the chance to forget their troubles and gaze into the distance with me.
In the middle of the summer campaign, the handover of duties took place. It was a festive occasion for everyone: Klaus and I wore traditional Bavarian costumes and, on 26 February, I was symbolically presented with the key to the station.
In the second half of the handover, the old ÜWIs made sure that the new ÜWIs were doing everything correctly, and answered any questions that arose. The process is well organised by the AWI, and their 40 years of experience in the overwintering business is apparent. I suspect that there’s scarcely a politician or CEO out there who could manage a handover so well.
Look out: novice drivers!
By the way, the handover begins with a very simple lesson: what should I wear today? With wind speeds of 30 knots and temperature of minus 9 degrees, the right clothes need to be worn to avoid regretting a wrong choice two hours later. Sunscreen and snow goggles quickly become our faithful companions.
And it ends with questions about details: how do I pack sterile goods before I can sterilise them in the hospital, and how do I do the Bowie Dick test or gather a spore sample?
I remember that the first time I rode a Ski-Doo, I couldn’t control the darn thing properly. Fortunately that’s now changed for the better – thanks to learning from the experiences of others and plenty of practice. I can still picture it in my mind: the triangular red sign, which tells me that, with regard to the vehicle in front, I have to be prepared for anything. Beware: novice drivers near the station!
In practice, driving a snowcat can only be learnt here at Neumayer and not during the preparation period in Bremerhaven. In summer, when the weather is good, traffic around the station is pretty heavy: snowcats, Ski-Doos, sledges, Arctic Trucks and pedestrians frequently cross paths. All vehicles are parked right in front of the station part of the time; none of them are locked. It’s a wonder that with so many pedestrians and so many novice drivers, accidents rarely happen.
Along with the personal handover, the mentors here ensure the continuity of the scientific areas. There is a recognisable risk that, with each ÜWI handover, information could be lost, like in a game of Chinese whispers. This would lead to false results and put the entire purpose of the mission at risk.
Among other things, the IT crew replaces the old memory system. The new system has a capacity of 450 terabytes, and it takes weeks to copy the data. In addition there’s a backup with another 450 terabytes, more than 20 outdated PCs and screens that need to be replaced, and the connections to the observatories have to be optimised.
Just after we arrive on the Polarstern, the geophysicists and meteorologists depart for a seven-day-long traverse: a scientific excursion to the remote observatories. These traverses aren’t simply trips in the conventional sense, and require careful logistical planning. While underway, the team has to eke out a Spartan existence, cooking and sleeping in an emergency shelter hauled behind a snowcat. During the day, they have hard manual labour to complete: using the snowcats and shovels, they have to excavate the seismometers and electronics for the remote stations, raise them to compensate for new snowfall, check their functionality and, if need be, repair them. These are all tasks that require a tremendous amount of work and risk in winter. But thanks to the supervisors’ experience, it all goes fairly smoothly, and all members of the team, tanned from working outdoors under the sun, return to the station safe and sound. And after the first shower in days, the hard work is soon forgotten …
Technicians under the gun
Due to the weather, changes of plan are virtually a daily occurrence. This especially applies to the station technicians, led by Stefanie Bähler. Essential outdoor work often has to be postponed due to storms, and the brief “windows” of good weather have to be capitalised on. Florian and Markus are always involved, and get to know the various tasks. Photovoltaic components are precisely positioned using cranes, then securely installed. The entire station has to be lifted hydraulically, the snow in the garage has to be levelled, and many of the observatories are due for their annual raising or inspection. On the snowcats, various mechanical components need to be tuned or replaced, which is virtually impossible during the winter months. Some of the containers have to be freed from the ice with a chainsaw and moved. Given the shorter amount of time that the technicians had this year, completing these tasks was a tremendous achievement.
In my first blog entry, I wrote that the Neumayer Station III couldn’t keep running without the research vessel Polarstern. As true as that is, the technicians on the summer campaign are just as vital. They’re who make sure that we ÜWIs have a dependable station, observatories and vehicle fleet for the coming winter months. Some of them have spent more than two years of their lives here, doing exactly that. Thank you all, dear technicians!
My monitor is vibrating…
In the meantime, I’ve settled in at the station, which is based on steel containers, and have gotten used to the fact that the walls start vibrating when the wind speed hits 40 knots. It feels almost like being in an airplane when it picks up speed on the runway. My computer monitor starts vibrating at around 25 knots, just like the two emergency exit ladders on Deck 1. My desk lamp and bed start vibrating at 40 knots, or when the laundry being done on Deck 2 starts the spin cycle. ‘Deck 2’: I’ve already gotten used to the fact that naval nomenclature is also used here at Neumayer. After all, the station is operated by a shipping company. Up to about 4 knots, you don’t feel any wind at all.
Iceberg, dead ahead!
On 8 March, during a scouting trip, Klaus and I spy a tabular iceberg, towering ca. 80 metres above the surrounding sea ice. According to the daily satellite images we receive, it’s been grounded right on the northern shore near the ice edge for the past five days. Since it’s autumn, the sea ice is fairly compact. The whole team starts thinking about a ‘Plan B’, since the iceberg is blocking exactly the point where the Polarstern is supposed to dock in just a few days, but soon thereafter, it moves on, taking the sea ice with it. What a relief!
All on board – well, almost all…
Now everything is ready, and on 18 March, following a severe autumn storm, the Polarstern drops anchor at the ice edge to take the return freight on board. The ‘return freight’ includes containers with our trash inside, since we can’t leave any behind in the Antarctic, not even our excrement. But the ‘return freight’ also includes scientific materials, like our serum samples for use in medical studies, which will be transported across the Equator and back to Bremerhaven in special cooling containers (‘reefers’) at a constant temperature of minus 25 degrees Celsius. There’s also our old steriliser, which was packed in a wooden transport crate lovingly prepared by our technicians and is now bound for Bremerhaven. And there are our old PCs, used oil, lubricants, food waste, etc. etc. …
Yet once again, the weather throws a spanner in the works: that night the Polarstern has to quickly leave the ice edge, because the sea ice is growing more and more compact. On 19 March, the most important return freight items remaining, along with the summer team, are shuttled on board via helicopter, and at 6:00 pm we wave a fond farewell to the last of our technicians … I’m happy to see that everyone is safely on board – well, almost everyone, since we ÜWIs are of course staying.
“Farewell…” (time-lapse video: Peter Jonczyk)
Now we overwinterers are the only ones left behind. We have five months of preparation, one month traveling by ship and two months of on-site training behind us. It’s an exciting, magical feeling: we’re on our own and happy to have come so far.
The 41st overwintering: Let’s go!
We spend the next day enjoying our newfound privacy and giving our rooms a personal touch. We need to wash the bedding from our 24 summer guests, and now have the normally bustling mess hall (canteen) to ourselves … and are right where we want to be. The road to our overwintering was a long and difficult one, but at times beautiful, too. In one of my next entries, I’ll tell you more about what was involved in our preparations…
Warm wishes from the container flat at the end of the world,
Your Peter Jonczyk