Those are the temperatures we’ve had here for the past few days, and to be perfectly accurate I should add a minus before that number and be sure to mention the Earth’s shadow, because we’re now in a 2-month phase where we’ll constantly be on the dark side of our planet! While we read newspaper reports on the heat wave back home, here at the southernmost workplace in Germany // the world we’re getting a first taste of the cold snaps during the Polar Night. For most people living in Central Europe, outside temperatures of ca. -45°C are a very abstract concept, since they’ve never experienced anything comparable. Our fellow Antarctic researchers at Russia’s Vostok Station once recorded -89°C: the lowest temperature every measured on the surface of the Earth. And in the hinterland the annual mean temperature, at -55°, is far lower than here on the coast.
Starting from -30° you can feel every single degree: materials become extremely brittle, plastic and rubber shatter, zippers break, hydraulic hoses burst and your own breath freezes in your beard, while your eyelashes are frosted as white as Santa Claus’s.
Is it possible to love steel?
It’s in exactly these moments of extreme Arctic cold that I’ve come to love this station, just like sailors love their ships. Other people love their cars or motorcycles. For instance, during his legendary polar drift Captain Nansen and his crew had a festive celebration to mark the birthday of their ship, the Fram. The crew literally sang the praises of their ship, because they were so impressed by the stability of her hull with reinforced bulkheads, which allowed it to withstand the piled-up ice. Here we can enjoy a warm shower in the middle of the Polar Night, when the wind outside pushes against the outer hull with a force of up to 250 t and the station’s clever double-shell insulation principle keeps the bone-chilling cold from reaching us. The entire station is on struts, yet when we play billiards at night, the ball is perfectly still and doesn’t roll off the table. Our two engineers work hard every day to make sure our shared home is a comfortable one. In addition, I’m incredibly grateful for the priceless views we get to enjoy from the station, and that we don’t have to live in giant subterranean pipes like our predecessors. As such, I’m not the only one who’s often mesmerised by the play of colours on the horizon at midday: blue hues below and red above, like the tasteful palette used for the station’s outer hull.
But before the Polar Night fell, we ventured outside with our cameras as often as we could, to capture the last rays of sun in May…
Time-lapse video: Taking in the fascinating sun, one last time (Peter Jonczyk)
In the dark mid-winter on 21 June, we were able to celebrate ‘Midwinter Day’ here in the Antarctic internationally with our colleagues. It’s considered an important holiday here, and we received numerous photos and greetings from others living here on this huge white continent. A continent almost as large as Russia, with a current population of around 1,000. What a thought: that’s just 1 person per every 18,000 square kilometres. One of the many reasons why I’m now living here as one of the ‘in-the-thick-of-it ÜWIs’ on the overwintering team. It’s an almost indescribable remoteness, which I found aptly illustrated in the Colouring Book for Polar Researchers by H.J. Hack, part of the collection in our library in the ice. A drastic ‘lockdown’ from normal civilisation.
But there is still a ‘lifeline’: the radome with satellite antenna is our supply line to the outside world. What a blessing! The daily television news, newspapers in PDF format and even the occasional international sports match; we really appreciate how well off we are, compared to our predecessors 2-3 decades ago. And the ever-growing volumes of scientific data also reach laboratories around the globe more rapidly. In addition, our friends and relatives can take a look at the webcam (installed on the radome) to keep up with ‘the Neumayers’ …
Plenty has happened in and around the station in the past 4-8 weeks:
Plenty going on with the penguins
The emperor penguins’ mating season is now at an end, and the vast colony has gathered again on the ice to spend the winter. While in March there were only a few birds on the ice, now large numbers huddle closely together to protect themselves from the wind and cold. We can look forward to spring, when the light conditions improve and we can take what are likely our favourite photos of the year in the Antarctic: then the clumsy chicks will start waddling across the slippery ice, and are sure to provide a good picture or two. Some of us have already spotted an almost completely black emperor penguin among the roughly 25,000 birds: good camouflage during the Polar Night!
Paper, pen and laptop …
… have been our constant companions here in recent weeks. I’m not the only one whose head spins when I think back on the several-week-long inventory. Thousands, literally thousands, of things in all areas of the station were counted, added to inventory lists, and sent to the Laeisz shipping company and the AWI. The figures we provided will make life easier for our successors, who will soon be moving into our old rooms in Bremerhaven, when it comes to ordering supplies. Restocking isn’t exactly an option in the Antarctic, and therefore everyone here does their best to ensure that there’s no reason to complain about us next winter. For instance, I didn’t envy Tanguy, our cook. He frequently had to take a break from the inventory after shivering in the -25° store room for 2 hours! The inventories are a part of life at a research station, and without them it can come to truly problematic shortages.
Photo: Also a part of polar research: Taking inventory (Peter Jonczyk)
Venturing onto the sea ice …
… is now an option again. The satellite images from the previous weeks were studied carefully for us by experts in Bremerhaven, and the sea ice in the bay investigated for cracks, movement of the ice masses and the necessary stability. A patch of sea-ice suddenly breaking off from the ice-shelf edge would be a real problem if we happened to be standing on it! Paul and I investigated the sea-ice ramp, where the ice shelf and the sea ice meet. We uncovered the flexible gap between the two using an ice pick, secured by climbing ropes while doing so. Now we’re finally ready: the sea ice has been declared safe, and we can start the sea-ice analyses and pay a visit to the penguins in the twilight of the Polar Night.
To round out the main components of our joint preparation period for the overwintering from the last blog, here I’d like to mention our eventful fire safety course.
Fire safety and overwintering
Three things make fire at research stations in the Antarctic extremely dangerous and difficult to deal with: the dry climate, the limited supply of liquid water, and the often strong winds, which can rapidly cause fire to spread. On top of this are the remote geographic location and vast distances. Reason enough for us, during our training at the Alfred Wegener Institute, to attend a top-notch fire safety course, which took us to Neustadt in Holstein on the Baltic Sea for a week. At the local naval site there is an enormous training area with several fire-training halls and a training ship, the Hulk.
In contrast, here at the station, monthly fire-safety exercises are on the agenda, where we repeatedly practise the techniques learned, and continually get better at them. Fire protection is a sensitive topic here in the Antarctic, and something that can’t be taken seriously enough.
Lastly, I’d like to say that during the four-and-a-half-month preparation period, we received excellent training for the overwintering. All the joint courses, as well as the job-specific training, were highly practical and provided us with a good and safe working basis for the actual overwintering.
The moon has risen …
… and doesn’t want to set. One of the most impressive phenomena in the Polar Night is that the full moon can be seen round the clock on clear days: it silently moves around the station and never sets. At night it’s so bright that, when the air is clear, we can see the icebergs in Atka Bay 8 km away, and we can move about without lights. And because we’re in the Southern Hemisphere, from our perspective the moon appears upside down and wanes from left to right.
Best midwinter wishes!
Your Peter Jonczyk