… is a rough translation of the title of the exciting travel journal Fridtjof Nansen published on his Arctic expedition from 1893 to 1896. Much has changed in polar research since then, so that our lives in the here and now are far more comfortable than those of the pioneers. But nothing has changed about the omnipresent night and ice, which is why the title always reminds me of our first forays onto the sea ice during the Polar Night.
I’m Paul, the meteorologist on the 41st overwintering team at the Neumayer Station. My day-to-day work includes weather observations, sending up weather balloons, and gathering various types of meteorological data. But just like everyone else, I also do jobs outside my own field, which in winter include organising and implementing the scientific activities on the sea ice. As part of the AFIN (Antarctic Fast Ice Network) research programme, the development of the sea ice in Atka Bay has been monitored since 2010. Doing so involves e.g. drilling ice cores, taking electromagnetic readings and deploying buoys, i.e., autonomous monitoring stations, on the sea ice. The season usually starts in April. Using satellite images, the ice situation is monitored for several weeks in advance; if it appears to be sufficiently stable, we begin our preparations.
Sea-ice treks are always a team effort. If it looks likely that we’ll have a window of good weather, I start loading up the sledges in the vehicle bay. We need shovels, drills, tools, sample containers, thermometers, tape measures and protocol sheets for our measurements, but also a great deal of emergency gear, like extra clothing or tents. The station engineers ready the vehicles and the trail leading to the sea ice. I go over the communications aspects with Theresa, our radio operator, and then discuss the safety concept for the trek with Peter, our station leader. We usually take a four-member team out on the ice, while the other six stay at the station. This also means that our teammates have to take over part of our daily duties while we’re away.
In the morning of a ‘sea-ice day’ we meet up after breakfast, to don our heavy polar clothing. The last odds and ends are packed onto the sledges, then it’s time to venture out into the Polar Night. It’s ten kilometres from the station to the naturally formed ramp that we drive down from the ice shelf to the sea ice. Once there, it’s like being in another world. Compared to the ice shelf, the sea ice’s surface is much more varied: perfectly smooth patches of snow alternate with ragged areas full of drifts, not to mention tiny ‘mountain ridges’ with ice formations measuring 1 to 2 metres in height. Here the autumn storms have shoved and stacked the floes together, and the bitter cold of the Polar Night has since frozen them in place. Our journeys through this landscape are surely some of the strangest and most impressive experiences of my life. It’s dark most of the day, and the ice is only lit by the headlights of our snowmobiles. Snow formations emerge in the headlight’s path, pass by us and then disappear again once we’re gone. It’s only around midday that a bit of twilight can be seen on the northern edge of the horizon, bathing the icebergs in a ruddy light.
On these journeys, my colleagues and I are all bundled up from head to toe to protect us from the cold; there can’t be even the tiniest bit of exposed skin. Bent over our snowmobiles and with the ice desert as our backdrop, it feels more like something from a science-fiction movie than part of our planet.
Our destination: six drilling sites, strewn across a 24-km-long stretch of the bay. Getting to them isn’t always particularly easy. To cross the ice ridge we regularly have to search for the best route, and sometimes even go back and try again a few metres farther on, gathering a head of steam before charging through, … Once we reach a drilling site, a well-rehearsed process begins. We mark five points in the snow and drill through the ice there. We then lower a plumb line to measure the ice thickness. Of particular scientific interest here is thickness of the platelet ice, a several-metre-deep layer consisting of thin ice flakes beneath the actual sea ice. These flakes form when super-cooled meltwater from the underside of the ice shelf rises, freezing in the process. The boundary of the platelets can only be felt as a slight resistance when removing the plumb, and requires a skilled hand – not so easy with thick gloves on. If a snow buoy also needs to be installed during our journey, an even larger hole is needed. The buoy is anchored there, and from then on measures the snow layer on the ice using four ultrasound sensors on its mast.
Around midday we have a tea break. Here you mustn’t wait too long before drinking. If you leave your cup on the aluminium box, you’ll soon have iced tea. There are also a few things to remember when it comes to eating. With time we have learned which chocolate bars are suitable for the Antarctic, and which aren’t. Some remain edible in the extreme cold, while others freeze solid.
And it’s always a special moment when we arrive at Atka24, the outermost drilling site. Located 30 km from the station, it’s hardly ever visited by humans, except when we make our measurements.
In the meantime, the Polar Night has come to an end here, and once again the sun shines on the ice for more than twelve hours a day. Our final sea-ice trek took place on 8 September, one of the first spring days in Atka Bay. In bright sunshine and with temperatures of up to -20°C at midday, there’s simply no comparison to the journeys during the Polar Night. The ice ridges which hindered us so badly in June have levelled off as a result of storms and snow accumulation. It’s often hard to believe that these are the same drilling sites where we made stops in the Polar Night. On our way back we even had time to enjoy the sunset before we rolled into the station’s garage with our sledges. Finally stepping out of the lift into the warm station, peeling off the endless layers of clothing, and drinking our left-over ‘sea-ice tea’ over supper with the others is one of the best parts of any sea-ice measurement trip.