Dome C, Antarctica

Or how to spend the summer in the coldest, flattest and whitest place on earth

"To strive, to seek, to find and not to yield"    — Tennyson's Ulysses
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Stefania in front of the Dome C distance sign pole. Computed by me and built by the cook.

Right: Stefania in front of the Dome C distance sign pole. Computed by me and built by the cook.

1997's trip to Antarctica was short but pretty intense: we had temperatures down to -50°C (-58°F) during the last nights !


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Twin Otter leaving Terra Nova.

Left: Twin Otter leaving Terra Nova.

It took me 17 days to get to Dome C. This place is just far. After the long flights from Europe, I spent a week in Christchurch waiting for those damn American C130 to take off. I'd never been in anything so noisy, it's hard to believe the doors are even closed... or maybe I was sitting inside one of the engines by mistake. And it was crowded too, everybody sitting on each other on some kind of net. Then 2 days in McMurdo, waiting. Although discovering a new Antarctic base is interesting, this is one of the ugliest place I've ever seen: ugly buildings everywhere, dirt, misty weather. Looks like New Jersey in winter. The food is bad, you have to pay for the beer and they have karaoké parties. That about sums it up !


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Map of that corner of Antarctica.

Then I hopped on a Twin Otter for a short flight to Terra Nova Bay, the Italian base. There, good (and warm) weather, good food, nice base, nice people. It's located further north at the tip of a small peninsula, with a nice view on icebergs, a huge glacier and a 2500m volcano. But no penguins, and the only birds are a couple of voracious skuas. There I had to wait for a week before the flight to Dome C. I worked as a crane driver, mechanics, electrician... you name it. I ended up all greasy and managed not to kill myself. My boss, Stefania Argentini, joined me there.

And finally we made it to Dome C on Jan 17th. It was really warm when we got there: -25°C (-13°F). And then as the days went by, it got colder. There's not much to see there. Actually it is more precise to say that there is absolutely nothing there: it's desperately flat, white and cold. Once you've seen the horizon, you've seen it all. The sun never set during our stay so we couldn't even count on a nice sunset to provide some change, but we saw some parhely circles with multiple suns and some Peary's arcs. For the rest, it's all work, eat and sleep.


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360° panorama of DomeC taken from the center of the station in January, before the arrival of the traverse.

Above: 360° panorama of DomeC taken from the center of the station in January, before the arrival of the traverse.


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Two of the four sleeping tents

Left: Two of the four sleeping tents



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Exceptional phenomenon: the Peary's arcs

Left: Exceptional phenomenon: the Peary's arcs

The sun never set during our stay, so there wasn't any nice sunset to look at. But on the other hand we saw some strange weather phenomena: the classic parhely, a kind of rainbow circling the sun formed by ice crystals in the atmosphere and sometimes visible in winter in 'more normal lands'. Less common, the '5 suns' are a parhely circle with reflexions of the sun on the left, right, top and bottom of it. Even more rare, the Peary's arcs which are multiple reflexions of light in ice crystals, forming strange lines in the sky. Beautiful and intriguing.

Work: our gear arrived 2 days after us. We rushed to set it up in less than 2 days. I had to work outside at -35° for hours without gloves to connect some hair-thin wires. So much for experiments designed by people in comfy labs in Italy. Then there was a pause to wait for the first results. And then we started crunching numbers to get some results that looked fairly good.




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A glaciologist taking snow samples. This big hole was done as an attempt to recover the drill when it got stuck for a few days. Fortunately it was not needed. In the background the drilling 'tent' is visible before its completion.

Ice Core program


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The drilling hole. It starts at 8m below ground level and goes down to -119m. The plan is to reach bedrock at about -3200m within a couple years. Temperature at -8m is -53°C, which is the average temperature at Dome C. Strangely, it is the exact same average temperature than Mars !

Left: A glaciologist taking snow samples. This big hole was done as an attempt to recover the drill when it got stuck for a few days. Fortunately it was not needed. In the background the drilling 'tent' is visible before its completion.

Right: The drilling hole. It starts at 8m below ground level and goes down to -119m. The plan is to reach bedrock at about -3200m within a couple years. Temperature at -8m is -53°C, which is the average temperature at Dome C. Strangely, it is the exact same average temperature than Mars !


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A mini-sodar for wind measurements.

Right: A mini-sodar for wind measurements.

The first experiment I set up was a Sodar for the CNR of Frascati. It's an acoustic device that makes measurements of the lower atmosphere, up to an altitude of about 400m. Two antennas send a 'beep' every 4 seconds. The echo is then measured and analyzed on site. After two days we ran in some trouble: the pre-amplifier of one of the receiver broke down, probably due to the cold, and the screen of one of our PC fried. Nevertheless we were able to run the experiment fairly well.



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A meteo mast for radiation and turbulence measurements.

Left: A meteo mast for radiation and turbulence measurements.

The other system, from the CNR of Bologna, measures atmospheric turbulence and solar irradiation. Some probes take the temperature of snow at misc depth, 4 photometers record the optical and infrared intensity of the sky and its reflexion by the ground, and a fast system measures the wind and humidity 10 times per second.



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Naked outside by -50°C. Or how to have fun with very little...

Right: Naked outside by -50°C. Or how to have fun with very little...

As for accommodations, there isn't much. We were only 15 to 20 people (depending on the incoming Twi-Otter flights) but fortunately there were some guitar players. Best of all was the doctor. I tend to think that it's all he could do ! Well, maybe it's better this way, I've been involved in surgeries in Antarctica before, but that's another story entirely. Besides the main room there's the sauna: heat up and sweat and then go roll naked in the snow in the middle of the night (-50°C mind you) ! Some fun.

Eat: the cook was French, but half the customers were Italians. So the typical menu was: soup (yeah, you get dehydrated fast there), 1st (but no green salad...), pasta, main (meat/fish + veggies), cheese, dessert... When you work outside all day, I can tell you that you don't leave much in the plate. We ran out of beer after 4 days, and we ran out of water after 10 !!! All we had to drink was wine (which is OK for a Frenchman) and... Fanta (but who in hell drinks that ???).



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The Dome C 97 team.

Left: The Dome C 97 team.


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Arrival of the traverse.

Left: Arrival of the traverse.

The only outside event of the summer is the arrival of the traverse from Dumont d'Urville (picture above). Ten or so big tractors pull sleds on skids on more than 1100 km. It's the only way to bring heavy equipment and fuel to Dome C. Depending on snow conditions and mechanical problems, the traverse takes 10 to 22 days to go up from the shore, less to get back down. And they spend only one or two days in Dome C, time enough to unload and turn back. On the bottom picture, the Sodar antennas are going back to DdU on a sled.


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Departure of the Traverse.

Left: Departure of the Traverse.



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The MS Italica, the Italian antarctic boat, at rest in Terra Nova Bay.

Left: The MS Italica, the Italian antarctic boat, at rest in Terra Nova Bay.

Sleep: it was the 1st summer campaign in Dome C, so the accommodations were still pretty poor. We were sleeping in big tents for 6, with a fuel stove but no electricity. The trouble was when it got real cold, below -50°C the anti-freeze fuel would freeze in the pipe and the stove would die in the middle of the night. I can tell you that the temperature in a tent can drop FAST. Then it was the contest of who would get up to thaw the fuel and restart the stove... Oh yeah, one last thing: the bathroom was outside, just a hole in the snow... That way you are sure nobody spends too much time in it !

So I stayed 17 days at Dome C, just long enough to collect meaningful data, write a report and then I had to pack up for a 17 days return trip: flight to Terra Nova, one week there spent building a roller for the ship cables. Then back to NZ on the MS Italica, a 120m ship that took the worse beating of its career in the roaring 40's in 19m waves. Beuhhhh... As usual I was glad to set foot on the ground. I'll be back...


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Check the scientific report we wrote about this mission.