…best describes the past few weeks here at the Neumayer Station!
I know there’s actually no such word as “nature-tacular”; nevertheless, I’m sure you know what I mean by it, and in my opinion, it describes the past month using a single, vivid adjective. That’s why I chose it for the title…
In terms of the climate, the Antarctic is a hostile environment to begin with. It could be the only continent with no known indigenous peoples. And today, the climate is still one of the reasons for it being so sparsely populated, and why you can’t even fly there without carefully preparing first.
Icebergs dead ahead!
If there’s one thing you can’t say about us overwinterers, it’s that we haven’t seen any icebergs! In fact, we had the chance to admire plenty of these strange travellers, like visitors from another world, during our journey here on board the Polarstern. What a gift! And then there are also the sedentary icebergs, which, trapped in the sea ice of Atka Bay, are beautifully illuminated time and time again by the spreading dawn.
In contrast, the giant tabular iceberg that paid us a visit here in Atka Bay in mid-August was hardly a gift. “D30A” was approaching our bay from the east and measured an amazing 70 kilometres long! Before it could arrive, the nearly triangular and far smaller tabular iceberg “B39” drifted past the ice-shelf edge.
The Neumayer Station III is located ca. 20 km from the ice edge on the “northern shore” and atop a roughly 200-metre-thick ice shelf: plenty of reason to take certain precautionary measures, after having consulted with Bremerhaven. Accordingly, for our safety, the trail to the ice shelf edge and the sea ice were temporarily declared off limits, since lead formation in the ice during the passage couldn’t be ruled out.
The daily satellite images gave us an impressive view of the icebergs’ collision-free approach to within 200 metres (!!) of the ice-shelf edge at the northern shore, just 20 km away from us, before both silently slid by. Throughout the days of the icebergs’ passage, every pair of binoculars on board the station was constantly in use: from the roof, we could see D30A filling the horizon to the north of the station and stretching into a narrow band over the eastern part of the bay! Simply nature-tacular!
Legend: NA = Northern shore; NM = Neumayer-Station
A storm is brewing
A few days earlier, we had experienced the highest windspeeds as a minute average ever recorded at the station.
When we “rookie overwinterers” arrived in the Antarctic back in January, walking on the ice at wind speeds of up to 30 knots was a challenge. Now we’ve been here for more than half a year, and most of us feel confident and surefooted at up to 50 knots.
Nevertheless, the storm that struck before the icebergs’ passage was in a class of its own. Starting on 11 August, the wind speed steadily climbed, peaking in the night of 12 to 13 August at 94.9 knots as a minute average, that is, 175 km/h! Individual gusts were even clocked at 112 knots (207 km/h).
To help put these numbers in perspective, at speeds above 60 knots it’s virtually impossible to remain upright. As such, the storm was nearly equivalent to a Category 3 hurricane!
Nevertheless, we came through virtually without a scratch: there were no injuries, and the damage to our equipment, including a temporary blackout for the snow-covered Spuso (Trace Elements Observatory / Spurenstoff Observatorium), was quickly undone, thanks to some interdisciplinary teamwork.
Video: Storm vibrations in the hospital, seen in the X-ray machine (Peter Jonczyk)
Iceberg calves from the Ekström Ice Shelf
The night of the storm, an iceberg nearly 53 km long calved from the Ekström Ice Shelf, ca. 20 km from the Neumayer Station. Thanks to the satellite images, we’d been expecting this to happen for some time. A fault line in the Shelf had been growing for years, and the newly calved iceberg drifted to the west, passing us by harmlessly. With an area of ca. 370 square kilometres, it was roughly half the size of the City of Hamburg.
GIF: Iceberg calves (Copernicus)
And last but not least, near the end of the month our station thermometer reached its lowest point yet for this winter, at -47.8° Celsius.
So you see: we can’t complain about this August! We had the chance to experience nearly every force of nature in the Antarctic from a safe vantage point. Recognising that fact called upon us to tap into a dimension of ourselves that we Europeans generally have little to do with. Personally, I feel a deep sense of humility when I think of these once-in-a-lifetime experiences.
Warning: Emotional content
But we weren’t the only ones to witness these natural phenomena in August: the emperor penguin chicks also risked a peek every now and then. But, shielded by a fold of skin on their parents’ stomachs, they were largely unaffected by the storm mentioned above. For me, the chance to observe the chicks was one of the most beautiful experiences of my overwintering.
Photos: Emperor penguins with chicks (Tanguy Doron)
Our next blog entry will once again come from Tanguy in the kitchen! Just a little hint to whet the appetites of our loyal blog readers…