Text and pictures © 2005-2015 Guillaume Dargaud
Last updated on 2012/12/28
"I dreamed I was eating peanut butter and actually enjoying it..." — Top sign the winterover is taking its toll.
Right: Roberto enjoying a tanning session in Karim's laboratory. The next best thing where there's no sun around.
Left: With the return of the light we discovered strangely mummified vehicles.
Right: Jean and his Caterpillar preparing a trail in the direction of Emanuele's shelter.
August 15th — According to Karim and my own calculations the sun should have come back up tuesday or wednesday... but we still haven't seen it. Three months that it's gone from our lives and we are beginning to wonder if it still exists. On monday some people claimed to have briefly seen the green flash for a few seconds as the sun reached its highest position just below the horizon, but Karim who spent most of the morning waiting with his camera and a special filter didn't see anything. Neither did I: I was in the kitchen all day replacing the chef for his rest day. There's a great view from the kitchen windows and all I could see were some low clouds wandering lazily at the north. When I wasn't busy with my stuffed fillet mignon and my crepe-cake (which disappeared into hungry stomachs in less than 2 minutes). On tuesday and wednesday the sky is completely covered by a haze brought by north winds. Then till sunday there are low clouds far on the northern horizon. Jean-Louis had pulled a bottle of champagne out for the first one to see the sun, but finally on sunday we got tired of waiting and we drank it, sun or no sun ! The days are getting lighter and the ban on solo exits from the station is finally lifted by the station manager.
Left: Jean repairing the sled used to carry away the 'brown water'
On monday yet again the sky is completely locked up in dark blue clouds with quite a lot of fresh snow accumulated everywhere, even on vertical surfaces. There are several trips to the summer camp to remove the snow accumulated behind the tents. Some of the storage tents have actually shredded, maybe because we had near record wind this winter, or maybe because spending 10 years in sub-sub-sub-zero conditions is not ideal... Now that the sun should have returned, the temperatures are going to soar quickly and there goes our hope of reaching sub -80°C temperatures. We are all a little disappointed by the minimum of -76.1°C we had already months ago. And the final drops comes on August 3rd when I get an email from Dana at the South Pole saying that they just reached a near record of -79.3°C...
Left: See the green line, it's a LED highlighting the trajectory of the probe. The shadow outline of the balloon and the person holding it is visible. Notice how after just a few meters the balloon gets caught in a strong horizontal wind. (Photo Roberto)
With the (expected?) return of the sun we are motivated to do some more experiments with the night. I place two LEDs on a weather balloon and take pictures of the launch with a long time exposure, along with Roberto doing the same thing with his digital camera. With the lifting of the ban on solo exits, I also go to my science container without feeling guilty of wasting the time of someone forced to come along. There I clean up the accumulated snow, remove the wind-drift formed right in front of the webcam, change some settings to the electronics of the Sodar and do some more routine work.
Message for Daniela: today it was Roberto's turn to cook for Jean-Louis's rest day. He did very well, a creole chicken with a vanilla and rum sauce. Particularly for someone who couldn't even cook an egg when he arrived. So when he goes back home you'll be able to put him in the kitchen... Also on the lighter side, today I saw Claire walking around the inside of Concordia with sunglasses on the top of her head. Probably to try to attract the sun to our parts...
Right: Like a surgeon, Roberto monitors the activity of the Mistacoba pumps.
Left: Finally on august 17th we see the sun for the first time after 3 months and 13 days.
Another sign that we've been here a long time is that some of the consumables are running out. I've already written about the progressive disappearance of all the fresh vegetables and fruits (at this point I think we only have onions left in decent shape, with some mostly dried potatoes, garlic and apples), but other items are going scarce as well. The 3 smokers on the station don't have a running lighter anymore and resort to lighting up with the blowtorch in the toolshed ! I though the scars on people's faces were due to exposing the skin to the extreme cold outside, but now I'm not so sure...
Right: The american mast, 30 meters high, gets progressively more covered with deposited ice the farther up you go.
August 18th — In the morning I go investigate a strange phenomenon: there's more ice the higher you go. This is quite visible on the various antennas around the station and in particular on the American mast, the highest structure in the area. I hike to my container as the wind is picking up to a good 10m/s, bringing the already -70°C temperature to a tremendous -100°C. I walk quickly, almost to a run, to stay warm in my down suit and I climb the tower immediately after my arrival. As already noticed with the balloon launches, the wind increases with the height above ground, and so does the humidity, explaining the accumulation of ice higher up on the tower. On the last few ladders I need to break my way through the crust. I stay but a few minutes on the summit, being careful not to turn my face to the wind; although I wear two face masks I can feel it penetrate at the boundaries of those and freeze the skin underneath. With this wind, this is most likely the coldest conditions I've ever experienced, after a minutes my hands are turning cold and I pack up the cameras under my suit and climb down the ladder with hardened boot soles. I warm up in my container before hiking back to base for lunch.
Left: Vertical view down the mast, and the amount of deposited ice, almost blocking the ladders.
Right: Yet another fire drill, this time with a victim: Jean-Louis with a hurt knee while he was trying to save the liquor bottles from the fire!
After lunch I'm just getting back in the mood for work when the fire alarm goes off. Now we know the drill and in 2 minutes everyone is ready. I pass the firemen dressing up in the corridors while I lay down the hose and reach the scene of the 'accident': a fire broke out in the back of the food storage room, right where the wine and liquors are stored. Jean-Louis tried to save a bottle of Pastis and hurt himself in the process. We find him laying down, still clutching said bottle. He's forcefully dragged out of the room and away from the 'fire'. While the firemen attack the fire, I bring back a stretcher and with Karim, Emanuele and Roberto we carry him though the narrow stairs to the emergency room, trying not to trip on the various hoses running up the stairs.
Left: Jean-Louis on the surgery table, having been brought through 'fire' and narrow stairs.
August 19th — Still part of the technical work going on to finish the construction of the station, I was kicked out of my room early this morning (well, early for me at least). The tiling of the 2nd floor is done and they just want to apply the protective coatings. And obviously make sure in the process that nobody wakes up late and stays glued to the ground walking out of their bedroom.
Right: Difficult sampling session during a windstorm with Emanuele as a ghost.
In the evening I go with Emanuele for one of his new night sampling sessions. The wind is fierce, carrying snow with it. After 5 minutes walking from the station we turn around and it's already gone from view, leaving only a faint yellow glow. I have to hold my hood to keep it from blowing back off my head while we walk fast to the sampling area, 1.5km from Concordia station. I take some strange pictures with the glow of the station in the back and the snow crystals all lit up by the flash.
Left: Emanuele watching the horizon with binoculars from his bedroom window.
August 20th — Today we celebrate Michel's birthday with a huge meal of game. After the usual rounds of appetizers we enjoy hazelnuts-kangaroo paté, hare paté, smoked duck breast, monkfish in tarragon sauce, blueberry sorbet, frog legs, juniper venison stew and venison leg with vegetables. All this followed by an almond cake. Burp!
Right: Michel holding the infamous singing cake, about to blow his candles on an almond cake.
August 24th — Now that Stef and Jean have finished laying down the tiles in the 'easy' rooms (read, the mostly empty ones), they are coming to the 3rd floor laboratories. And pandemonium ensues. All the equipment has to be moved, including some real-time data acquisition computers. The good thing is that the tons of boxes with unknown content left over from the construction have to be moved as well and we probably won't see them again. They start with Emanuele's lab. He moves all his equipment to the just freed technical office in some kind of musical chair game. The technical office has just been relocated downstairs to what was previously a storage and smoking room. Meaning I don't have Michel and Claire as next door neighbors anymore. While the tiling goes on Emanuele has to do his ultra pure snow and air filter sampling from the middle of a mess of boxes. Next on the list is Karim who has already emptied his office in preparation. My turn will come next week.
August 26th — For the first time in 4 months I want to try downloading data off the CR23 mast. The mast is an experiment we installed 5 years ago and that's been running on and off ever since. It's designed to run unattended during the long winter. For this purpose it has a very large battery underground which can be reloaded in summer with an outside power source, but also with a small solar panel, and in winter there's a small wind-powered generator. The mast supports various experiments to measure standard meteorological parameters and also solar irradiation. The problem with the data is that it's difficult to perform a download: I have to go there with a laptop and pray that it doesn't die from the cold during the 20 or so minutes it takes to download the data. So now that the temperatures are a bit warmer we want to give it a shot using an external power source.
Left: That's me in a cramped shelter, doing a data transfer from the CR23 mast to a poor frozen laptop.
Claire goes to the summer camp to act on the power distribution board and I go to the tiny green container at the base of the mast. No power. She tries several possibilities to no avail so I decide to go check in the nearby geophysical tent where the power breakers are located. The problem is that the door is covered by a 2 meter thick wall of wind-hardened snow, very hard to break with the shovel. I used to work in that tent 5 years ago and I remember a velcro entrance on the other side. Yes, it's free of snow and I find the breakers off inside. Back to my shelter I find power, fire up the laptop, push it against a tiny heater to try to keep it alive and connect the serial line to the CR23. 10 minutes later I have most of my data and I'm heading back home for analysis.
Right: Claire holding a bucket to catch the dripping water while Jeff tightens up the pipes.
Rain in Antarctica ?!? Today the technical team turn on the newly installed water network in the quiet building. Resulting in a minor flooding on most floors and particularly in the various double ceilings. I'm just coming back from acquiring data off the CR23 mast, and when I walk inside Concordia there's water spraying off the ceiling pipes in many spots. During the afternoon it's a continuous action of running from one place to the other, turning valves on and off, checking for leaks in the pipes, closing the leaks, moping up... After a few hours at this rhythm the system is now mostly operational but we won't be allowed to take the first shower before everything is tested by tuesday.
Left: Stef and Michel tightening the joins along the dripping water pipes, inside a double ceiling.
Right: Jeff reporting on the status of the water distribution system.
Left: Christophe painting the heat distribution pipes in the corridor between the two towers.
Right: Jean-Louis cleaning up the snow accumulated over the cubes of frozen wine, prior to bringing them indoors to thaw... and drink.
Left: One more image of the green flash of the sun
Left: Roberto impersonators wearing work overalls pausing inside the newly remodeled Gym room.
August 27th — I know it looks like we celebrate more birthdays than there are people on the station, but today is our venerable doctor's birthday. As a special gift we plan on reorganizing the gym where he likes to spend a lot of hit time (and a lot of his calories as well). The reason for this change is that he like to have everything precisely positioned and brought back to the ideal position after use. So we just decided to change his habits a bit. We were planning to do this in the afternoon immediately after his weightlifting session, but after lunch he went out for a walk and didn't come out of the gym until after 18:00. We rush to the gym while he's in the shower and move everything around to what we hope are convenient positions.
Right: Catching breath to blow the candle on his very impressive dessert: a single baked Apple (the real desert came right after).
Another joke we play on him, we all dress in blue overalls, as an imitation. It might seems strange to have a doctor often dressed in unusual overalls, but the reason is that he doesn't have much other clothing ! People who come to Antarctica receive a pile of Antarctic clothing and gear. The french package includes blue-Jeans, slippers, warm synthetic long-sleeve T-shirts, that is stuff to wear indoors in addition to all the outdoors gear. It's normally enough to wear for the entire winter, but the italians provided only outdoors gear. So Roberto, who had taken the plane with only the clothing he was wearing, was surprised when he only received heavy winter gear and nothing to wear indoors and had to resort to wearing work overalls most of the time.
And final joke of the evening for the always health conscious doctor: steamed veggies and a single baked apple for dessert... Well, that's where the candles were anyways, until Jean-Louis brought the real apple pie to the satisfaction of all.
Left: Claire on the roof of the power plant, next to the exhaust pipes.
Right: Claire breaking the 'alien eggs' growing on the power plant exhausts.
August 31st — The smoke coming out of the power generators contains humidity that freezes instantly upon contact with the outside cold air, progressively forming what we call 'Alien eggs' on the top of the exhaust pipes. Those dark frightening ovoid shapes need to be broken down regularly to maintain the efficiency of the engines running below. Next year there will be additional filters installed, but for today it's Claire with a hammer. She's done that several times before but I'm surprised by how thin they are, the dark shell is just a few mm thick and after having hammered half of it off, she picks the other half off the pipes and throws it on the snow below. Note that she didn't do this at night...
September 1st — From the last 25 years of archived Automated Weather Station data, the temperature has never reached -80°C in september. But today while the sun is out the temperature is already at -72°C and dropping steadily. When the sun goes down we are at -77.7°C and during the night we hit the record for the winterover at 22:01: -78.6°C (-110°F). The next lunch I pull out my last remaining bottle and write Vintage -78.6 on it before opening it. I happen to have found this bottle hidden in the summer camp while doing the cleanup in february when we moved to Concordia. A good thing too, as it would certainly have exploded with the cold after we shut off the heating of the summer camp. Is this record gonna hold ? Who knows, as I write this the sun is up and it's still -74°C... This afternoon almost everybody goes out to take a group picture and feel the cold, removing the face masks to look tough on the pictures. Although after just a few seconds noses and ears begin to harden into ice.
Right: Most of the team united during the record low temperature of the winter: -78.6°C. Top, left to right: Michel, Christophe, Pascal, Jeff, Stef, Jean-Louis, Roberto. Bottom: Emanuele, Jean, Claire, Michel, Guillaume, Karim. (Photo Karim Agabi)
The next night I go with Karim and Roberto to take some pictures. We want to 'enjoy' what may be the last true night of the year. The moon will be coming back soon and after that there won't be any more true darkness. With the -74°C temperature the sky is dark and pure, the milky way visible like a stain of white paint splitting the sky in two. At this temperature the difficulties in taking pictures are staggering, both equipment and photographers suffering greatly. Both Roberto and Karim have a Nikon D70 whose batteries don't last more than 2 or 3 minutes outside. They need to come back inside after each single picture, change the battery pack and remove the condensation off the lenses with a hot air blower. As for me the old manual Nikon EM works flawlessly but I'm afraid of having the film become brittle and break with the cold, so I bring it back inside regularly to warm it up. The batteries of my F100 die after half an hour outside, and I've been using them for barely a month at those temperature ! But the main difficulty remains the human factor: it's hard to check the focus when your own breathing makes an opaque cloud around the camera, or when you can't even get your eye close enough to the camera because of all the masks on your face. I need to remove my outer gloves regularly to set parameters on the cameras, particularly to play with the tiny buttons of the digital models. After a while I can't feel some fingers; inside I discover my thumb and index finger hard as wood and cringe in pain as I put them under the hot air blower.
All in all we barely took 20 images total with 5 cameras in one hour. And most of those are not even very good by any standard ! I'll see mine in just over 3 months: today I received my return order. I'm booked on a flight from Terra Nova Bay to Christchurch (NZ) on december 3rd. 90 days to go before the liberation... I don't know yet if I have to walk from Dome C to BTN but Bob, the Canadian Twin Otter pilot who comes here every summer, promised to break our isolation in the first days of november. Hopefully with gifts of salad and other fresh veggies.
Right: Jean, Stef and Jeff (and myself taking the shot) showing the true meaning of the expression 'freezing your balls off', just a few days after we reached the record cold. Needless to say, we didn't stay outside very long.
When it is so extreme the cold has a menacing physical presence, like an enemy you know is always around watching you. If you go out without a complete face mask the cold hits you like a slap in the face, the muscles in your face have spasms within a few seconds. Also if you need to do something precise outside the only solution is often to remove the gloves and do it with the naked hand, feeling like you plunge your hand in boiling water, a few seconds is all you can achieve and the glove has cooled off noticeably in the short interval your hand was out of it. Leather gloves become hard and feel like metal. Other strange effects are for instance the soles of even cold-weather boots becoming hard as wood. I once had to go outside repeatedly, if only for a minute, so I didn't bother to put on my large boots and only wore my old hiking boots. After a few trips I noticed that I was leaving pieces of rubber on the floor as I was walking back indoors: the soles where shattering in pieces from the cold !
The rule in the deep of winter is: no exposed skin. The weak points in our armors of clothing are felt at once: where the pile jacket has pulled out of your pants, where the down feathers have settled away, where the 'breathing hole' under the armpit lets air way too cold in... And if you are going to be outside for a while, you'd better go back inside and readjust all those multiple layers. When you bring a large piece of equipment or heavy machinery from outside in a heated room, you can feel the cold from a distance, like a fluid seeping from the equipment and running around your feet. Personally one of my favorite effects of extreme cold is the sound the air makes as you expire, the humidity condenses at once in a sharp tingling noise akin to a whistle. By blowing at various speeds you can change the 'tune'.
Left: Snow height measurements several km away from the station.
Right: Breath freezes right out of your mouth, to the point that it's difficult to read or take notes outside.
September 5th — Emanuele has been wanting to do a snow height measurement trip for a long time but has postponed several times already, several times due to the extreme cold, other times due to his very busy schedule. Today the conditions are perfect as this morning the wind dropped to nil and the temperature raised by a good 15°C in less than an hour. After lunch we gather GPS, cameras, a bunch of heating packs and we head south in the direction of the old AWS station. A km from the station we stop at the CR23 mast and I climb the tower to clean the snow covered sensors while Emanuele takes a few pictures. Then we keep walking straight south. The old AWS station is in the center of a cross of 50 wooden poles planted years ago to record snow accumulation. We reach the first pole after about an hour's walk; Emanuele fishes his meter out and starts taking measurements on the highest and lowest side of the pole while I alternate between taking pictures and writing down his measurements. There's a pole every 100 meters until we reach the old AWS. This diminutive tower is the oldest still working experiment at Dome C. Installed in late 1983 this station operated flawlessly for more than a decade with a portable nuclear generator as its power source. When the Antarctic treaty banned the use of radio-isotopes in Antarctica the station was replaced with a similar model with a large battery for the winter and solar panels for the summer.
Left: A slightly frozen Emanuele on the way back to the station.
Right: Cleaning up the AWS station.
When we reach it I clean the various sensors on the station and remove the snow from the solar panels. The station is in good conditions, it's just getting deeper in the snow year after year. When we turn around and look at the station it's barely visible: Jean is out digging snow with the Caterpillar and his smoke covers everything but the roof antennas. It's a powerful feeling to be out in the middle of this perfectly snow plateau and almost out of sight of... just about anything. We continue south to record the heights of the other side of the cross of poles, then cut across diagonally for the 3rd branch, reach the AWS again and finish the 4th branch as the sun is getting low on the horizon and the temperature is dropping violently. During the measurements we have to stop often and we get cold. I have two heat packs in my breast pockets and give them to Emanuele who's freezing his fingers doing the measurements with only light gloves. It's an hour long hike to head back to the station and we see mirages as we are about halfway: the snow seems to contain a low wall a couple hundred meters away, all around us.
Left: The old AWS station, the oldest still working scientific equipment at Dome C.
Right: Emanuele taking a break on a sastrugi after the long walk. Only 1km to go.
Back to the station after the entire afternoon outside where we take the many layers off with some difficulty: my beard is frozen tight to my face mask and I have to wait 10 minutes before it falls off. Emanuele has several frozen fingers and red marks below his eyes, where his skin was exposed. A look at the weather station informs us that it was indeed nice and 'warm' at -58°C when we left, but the temperature was back to an unforgiving -70°C by the time we got back. Emanuele already spent an hour outside in the morning to perform a snow sampling, and he has to go back out again after dinner for yet another sampling as the temperature hovers around -75°C again. He's by far the team member who spends most time outside.
Now that the Epica project has finished drilling and stopped a few meters short of bedrock, why is there still some glaciology research and how is it different from the drilling ? Here's an answered I compiled based on his winterover scientific report.
The official title of Emanuele's research here is: "Paleo-climate and paleo-environment from ice core chemical, physical and isotopic stratigraphies". That's a mouthful. And indeed he was very busy all winter, almost never having time to watch the odd movie at night and running around to his sampling areas several times every day. I estimate that he walked outside more than 1000km, enough to walk to the coast !
Right: Emanuele with a snow sample in his hands. He wears glove to avoid possible contamination of the sample.
Left: Emanuele standing outside his shelter, where he has several pumps running.
The main goal of his research is to study the chemical composition of the aerosols being deposited, depending on the season and particle size. By aerosol we mean any kind of solid particle present in the atmosphere: snowflakes, ice crystals, solid state condensation (aka reverse sublimation)... In other words, what happens at the limit between snow and atmosphere and what happens to the chemicals present in the air as the snow deposits, as well as what happens later as it starts to turn to ice deeper in the ground. A reliable understanding of the present situation is necessary in order to analyze the deep cores going back hundred of thousands of years extracted by the Epica drilling project, now finished. The understanding of past climates, ranging 8 full glacial cycles, requires a solid understanding of how the chemicals get there in the first place: re-emission into the atmosphere, chemical transformation, diffusion in the snow layers...
Right: Emanuele checking on the ice deposited during the last 24 hours with a lens.
For this purposes, aerosol, hoarfrost, superficial snow and crystal samples have been collected around Concordia. Several basic analyzes were performed on site, for instance nitric, hydrochloric, sulfuric and methanesulphonic acids. The laboratory possesses a ion chromatograph, a laminar flow hood to manipulate sampling devices in contamination-free conditions, a gradient water purification system, technical scales, an ultrasonic cleaning bath and some extra tools.
Left: Deposited snow crystals, combination of bullets in the mm range (photo Roberto).
Aerosol samples were collected during the winter in a tiny shelter 500m upwind from Concordia using various types of pumps and filters: a preselected cutoff sampler, a multi-stage impactor and a filter-sandwich system. The samples collected by the cutoff devices were lower than 10 and 2.5 micrometers. The multi-stage device is able to separate and collect aerosols from 10 to 0.4 micrometers in 8 fractions. Such sampling will allow to correlate the chemical composition of the Dome C aerosol to its size distribution. Samples were taken continuously for durations of 6 to 8 days and repeated most of the winter.
Right: A bubble bath to extract chemicals from outside air absorbed by the water.
Hoarfrost and superficial snow were collected all year round in several sites around Concordia Station. During day/night alternation periods (spring and autumn) samples were collected both at night and at noon; this in order to study the effect of sun irradiation on the atmosphere/snow transfer process and on the persistence of some chemical compounds in the superficial snow layers. All those samples will be analyzed in the glacio-chemistry laboratory of the Chemistry Department of the University of Florence for Na+, NH4+, K+ , Mg2+, Ca2+, F-, Cl-, NO3-, SO42-, acetate, formate, MSA, stable isotopes, tritium, mercury, trace elements from cosmic material...
Cursory analysis of those samples was performed inside the Concordia laboratory and will be compared to a more in depth analysis run on those same samples after their return in Europe.
Left: Putting the samples away in a frozen container, which will be brought back 'cold' to Europe for enhanced analysis.
Besides the taking of aerosol and snow samples, Emanuele is involved in nivologic and glaciological measurements to determine how the snow deposits on the Dome C plateau which is of primary importance in the calculation of the surface mass balance of the Antarctic ice sheet. Is Antarctica melting or not ? Ice crystals structures affects the quality of satellite measurements because they change the physical properties of the snow surface, such as the albedo, and thus have an influence on the planetary energy budget used in weather forecast and global warming models. Every day, Emanuele took observations on the amount of deposition and the shape and size of snow crystals with a pocket lens on a raised wood tablet. The main five crystal categories are diamond dust, precipitation particles, blowing snow, air hoarfrost, and surface hoarfrost; all ranging in size from 0.5 to 2mm and forming almost every day. The predominant crystals were constituted by columns and needles, with some variations having interesting names like Shimizu crystals or bullet clusters !
By measuring the snow height around a network of 50 poles, it was determined that the snow accumulation was 4cm between autumn and spring. And final thing that Emanuele is taking care of: a geomagnetic observatory on which he downloads data monthly.
Left: Installation of the newly tiled atmospheric science laboratory: Stef, Jean, Emanuele, Pascal and myself moving everything back inside.
September 7th — After nearly a week away, I can move back in my newly tiled lab. The lab looks a lot brighter and cleaner. While Stef and Jean were working on the flooring I had taken shelter within Emanuele's lab. Now that I was beginning to dirty up his clean room-like lab with beard hair all over, he's probably happy to see me go. In the afternoon we move all the equipment back inside the lab: tables, computers, acquisition systems and also a lot of messy cardboard boxes from the room next door on which they are gonna work now... The next few days the do the tiling of the corridor and thus finish off the 3rd floor of the quiet building. Next is a much bigger job: the tiling of the food storage room... which is full. The tons of food are moved to the other rooms available on the same floor: the +4°C fridge, the video room and the gym room, filling everything to the ceiling.
Left: Jean-Louis at battle station, preparing the saturday night dinner while the next morning delicacies are cooling off, right out of the oven.
Right: Pascal cutting up his raspberry cake with the help of Claire.
September 10th — Tonight we celebrate Pascal's birthday. In short: lobster, salmon pasta, rosé wine sorbet, snails, quails, cheese and frozen raspberry soufflé. After we finish the desert, Stef pulls out a homebrew he's been working on for the last 44 days, aptly named '44'. Everyone ends up dancing in the library thanks to the '44'.
Left: For Pascal birthday, Stef concocted a homebrew called '44'.
Right: And here's the result after too much '44' and a bit of music.
Left: Jeff squeezed inside a shaft, installing air conditioning ducts.
Right: Jeff inside the larger double ceiling, the one between the 1st and 2nd floor.
During the day it's rare to cross path with Jeff as he's been living inside double ceiling and elevator shafts for the past few months. Now that the water tubes have all been installed in the quiet building he's working on installing air ducts between the various rooms. It's not that we really need air conditioning in the sense of cooling here, but a better flow of air will make things more comfortable. First it will be possible to monitor the temperature at the various corners of the buildings and send warm air to equilibrate the discrepancies. Then a global humidifier will also be installed and we all hope to be able to sleep better after that. Currently the relative humidity inside the station is extremely low and we all wake up regularly at night to drink and remove crusted bogey...
Left: Jeff cutting one of many holes through the ceiling of each room in the station, to add air conditioning pipes.
Right: Jeff inside one of the vertical shafts.
Left: Jeff squeezed uncomfortably between the double-ceiling beams, cutting a hole during installation of the air-conditioning pipes.
Left: Dune-like snowdrift away from Concordia.
September 13th — It's been windy and humid with a flow of northern air coming from the far Antarctic ocean; the humidity leaves a coating of ice on every surface and thus my anemometers are slowing down. This morning I decide to go clean them up and step out of Concordia in much more violent wind than my measurements had me believe. One km to the south-west following the path taken twice daily by Emanuele and I arrive at the weather station which is since today part of the official World Meteorological Organization. I remove the coating of ice and once the work's done I head east to the CR23 mast. At a certain point I'm completely out of sight of... anything. Total whiteout, an eerie feeling. I haven't taken the GPS with me but I'm not too worried, I can always follow my footsteps back. After about 200m of walking in what I hope is a straight enough line, the shadow of the mast emerges from the whiteout.
Left: Picture of the green laser of the lidar, reaching for the sky.
Right: Claire cleaning up the dust off the power plant after a fire extinguisher went off.
September 20th — Nothing out of the ordinary happening lately. The winter darkness is receding and there's no true night anymore, even at midnight there's a faint glow on the horizon. I step outside at night to enjoy the last views of the Milky Way until my return. Nothing out of the ordinary was I saying, that is until this morning where a laughing Michel comes to my lab to tell me to go see the pair of Smurfs in the power plant ! They were doing some servicing on the fire extinguishers and one of them, improperly hooked back, went off and scattered its content of blue powder all over the place. When I get there, Claire and Christophe are almost done with the vacuum cleaners, and indeed they are blue as Smurfs.
The end of the winterover is getting nearer and is now discussed daily. The travel books for New Zealand and Australia are always taken and around the dinner tables the discussions often go turn to the subject of vacation destinations. We received the lists of summer and winter personnel, separately from the french and italian institutes that plan the activities at Concordia. The lists are taped on the wall of the bar and make for a nice gathering point. The first thing we did was counting how many women are coming (!), but we also try to remember the names and occupations of people we haven't seen for a few years and who decide to come back for some reason, as well as figuring out when our successors are coming and how much time we'll have to bring them up to speed. We wonder in particular what the next crop of winteroverers will look like.
Left: Fisheye picture of Emanuele taken from inside his extractor hood, where he opens up his air and snow filters.
September 30th — The wind picked up this afternoon and came very close to the speed record of the winter, about 16m/s. It's not a big problem since I barely set my nose outdoors to help Pascal and Michel bring a large heavy power cable inside the station and later launch the usual weather balloon. No, the real problem happened after lunch: the email server just died. Impossible to reboot it. Backup ? We don't need no stinkin' backup ! I spend most of the night chkdsk'ing the disk, then manually repairing the destroyed registry files and the missing drivers. Finally I think I've earned my keep of Champagne when I manage to perform an email communication. The next morning I arrive in the radio room only to find a sad Pascal saying that the computer died again, so he spends the day (we don't work in the same time zone) reformatting, then changing the disk, only to have the same problem later. We remove the Firewire card, change the graphic card and drivers and 20 hours after the original crash the email system is operational again... only to crash again during the night. I test the memory chips and remove every add-on from the hardware. Finally Pascal opens up the power supply and finds it quite brown inside. This is it, except that we've been out of power supplies for quite a while now as they seem to burn with a scary regularity. So we vampirize yet another PC to recover parts we hope will last till next month and the arrival of the supply parts. There's now a whole stack of PCs stripped of their hard drives and power supplies sitting in the corners of several rooms.
Left: It's -40°C with a bit of wind, ideal time for a swim: Everybody strip down and dive in !
October 1st — The melter is scheduled for cleanup for the second time this winter. Only we have a small idea of what to do with the water destined to be thrown away... why not take a bath. Today is pretty warm outside, with a balmy -35°C outside and 25°C in the water. 3 of the 4 heavy trapdoors are raised off the water. Stef brings two large pieces of carpeting to put on the snow below the melter and on the metal border. Almost everyone is here and walks out of the power plant (closest door) in bathrobe. I'm out for a while taking pictures while they dip in, and then I undress in the power plant, run in underwear to the melter and jump in. The water is not all that warm and Michel opens up the water circulation with a wrench. Yeah, I guess plumbers go take a bath with a wrench in their underwear ! There's not much space but I manage to take a few strokes... and loose my wedding ring. Seems like my fingers have shrunk in diameter with the lack of climbing lately. With the humidity coming out of the water and the cold wind blowing straight at us from the north, our hair gets quickly covered with a thick mane of ice. After 10 minutes I've had enough while others stay for a good hour before running back barefoot to the power plant to warm up and dry up. Hot shower welcome.
Right: Myself taking a bath in the snow melter... and freezing my head off at the same time !
October 2nd — The next morning the conditions are different. The outside temperature is much colder, a good -45°C, it's sunny with almost no wind and the bathwater is much warmer. I'm the first one to jump in after doing my underwear run from the power plant and it's so hot that I jump right out. Only to find myself freezing and jump back in... After a few times in and out I get used to the temperatures and manage to stay inside while the others throw a few shovels of snow inside, with little difference. We get out after a few minutes, cooked to 'well done'.
Left: The technical team purging the radiators of the summer camp power plant in forecast of the summer campaign.
Right: A hatless Jean adjusting the forks on his dear Caterpillar before lifting an engine.
October 4th — During the afternoon the technical team removes the large radiators off the outer wall of the summer camp and brings them inside the garage to let them thaw so they can purge the glycol inside. The summer camp power plant is just a set of generators in a container and the heat generated by the engines is eliminated through those large radiators outside; the Concordia power plant is a lot more efficient as the heat is then distributed throughout the buildings. Saves a lot on the heating bill ! It was even too efficient as we would somehow overheat when they started this setup earlier this year and a heat exchanger with the outside had to be added to the system. In recent weeks Pascal has implemented and automated regulation of heat, power distribution and many other parameters throughout Concordia. They are still fine tuning the parametrization as today when they where running tests and kept cutting power to various kitchen appliances while Jean-Louis was trying to cook.
Left: Claire performing her regular tests on the water to ensure its quality.
Right: Claire cleaning up the stinking fat filtration vats, where specially 'trained' bacteria give a strong crazy cheese aroma to the room (and to Claire too is she spends too much time there...)
Left: Claire inside one of the water recycling tanks, cleaning goo off the inside.
October 7th — Disgusting operation this afternoon, the cleaning of one of the tanks of the water recycling system. The tank is about 2 meters in diameter and covered with a thick layer of slime which needs to be scraped by hand. The entrance is a narrow hole which gives us all an excuse to send the thinest person around inside the goo, namely Claire. She squeezes inside and starts filling bucket after bucket of slime, passing them to Christophe and Jean to go pour outside in the 'mud box', a simple cardboard box where all the leftover from the water recycling system goes, as well as liquids poured into the urinal. After a few minutes she starts scraping the ceiling of the tank and a large spatter of goo falls onto her head. The smell is not that great but not as bad as the fat skimming tanks she cleaned in the morning; those tanks which are the first step in the recycling process really reek of rotten food, bacterial activity and floating... whatever.
Right: Claire passing one of many buckets of goo to Christophe from the inside of the tank. She started knee deep in goo and had some rain down on her head when she touched the ceiling.
Left: The 'mud' tank below the stairs, where all the urine and leftover water from the water recycling process gets dumped (pipe clearly visible). It freezes in place in the cardboard box which needs to be replaced about every other week.
And where does all this stuff go ? Nicknamed 'mud', it goes to the same destination than the urine (which cannot be recycled), through a pipe to freeze in a large sled-mounted cardboard box below the tunnel between power plant and noisy building. When it's filled by about 4 cubic meters of mostly frozen 'mud', the sled gets pulled out of the way and replaced by an empty one, a maneuver which takes a few hours with the Caterpillar, and during that time you'd better hold it...
Right: The 'mud' boxes, stored a few hundred meters from Concordia before being hauled back to DdU by the Traverse next month.
October 9th — Quite a few bad news lately. A few days ago we learned about the disappearance of two Argentinians and three Chileans in separate accidents in the Antarctic peninsula. The former were riding on a snowmachine while the latter were in a snowcat and both groups fell to their death into crevasses. The Argentinians are decidedly unlucky, with their communication building burning to the ground as well.
Right: Little incident on the windiest day of the year, the aeolian lost its tail (here sitting at the base) !
October 6th was the windiest day of the year, with a wind speed reaching 16 m/s, which is no big deal compared with what happens in most of the world, but here it means two things: whiteout conditions with clouds and blowing snow reducing severely the visibility, and tremendous wind chill even when well dressed. A few days later when the wind finally drops Jean-Louis is the first to notice from his kitchen window that the tail of the aeolian has fallen off. This is a wind generator which was used in previous years to heat up the underground garage to keep the vehicles' batteries from freezing off. We haven't been using it this year so were weren't monitoring it. Looks like one more thing to repair when the summer people arrive.
Continuing with the problems, yesterday Emanuele and Roberto had a phone conference during the launch sequence of the Cryosat satellite, first they had lots of trouble to get the phone communication up and managed to talk only for a minute, only slightly better than the brand new satellite itself whose communication was lost 90 minutes after the launch. It cost 160M US$ to build and was supposed to spend three years determining the effects of global warming by analyzing polar ice. Instead its apogee engine failed and it plunged straight into the northern polar ocean... for a very close and very last look at the ice. The next night one of our two satellite system fried in the radio room. It was already difficult to have a stable internet connection and now it's next to impossible.
Left: The Antarctic Chainsaw Massacre, only here you have to be indoors to be able to start the chainsaw...
Right: Michel cutting wood to build a parking area for snowmachines, next to the garage.
October 13th — From the major to the insignificant, there was a different category of problem this morning as I was woken up by water dripping from the ceiling onto my bedroom chair. I got up fast to fetch the plumbers (Michel and Jeff), fearing one of the newly installed water pipes had sprung a leak, but apparently it comes from the sun heating up the ice accumulated inside the triple windows, causing it to melt and drip down the walls. In other words, it's getting too hot... even though today the temperature was still oscillating between -40°C and -60°C, but pretty nice at that without any wind. The other problem with raising temperatures is that we look at the scale and think: "-50°C, bah, it's 25°C warmer than what we had last month, so I don't need to dress up..." And after we go out without face mask or with just a T-shirt under the down suit we have time to reflect on our own stupidity...
But before we leave the station, let me show you around...