"Q: What do you get when you cross a snowman with a vampire ? A: Frostbite."
What are the 'Domes' ?
They are very flat snow summits across the Antarctic High plateau. From what I know, they've been named more or less according to their altitude while being discovered by the first pilots to fly airplanes across the continent in the 50s. At the time it was an IAGP project led by Gordon Robin of the British Antarctic Survey. Thus Dome A, B, C... But there were some mistakes in their altitudes and some domes weren't real summits, thus Dome D and E were later removed from the maps. 'B' is not quite a dome but more of a ridge and was thus renamed 'Ridge B'. And Dome F is actually higher than Dome C by 500 meters.
Other minor domes were discovered later, particularly thanks to the advent of satellite imagery: Sipple Dome in west Antarctica, Talos Dome in Oates Land where a new Epica drilling starts in 2005, Liberty Dome behind the Filmbulheimein range... They all depend on where the ice flows.
So in order of altitude you have: Dome A > Ridge B > Dome F > Dome C > Talos Dome > Sipple Dome... And of course Mt Vinson is taller than them all.
Where is Dome C ?
Go straight south from Australia and you arrive at Dumont d'Urville. Keep going SSW for 950km and you arrive at Dome C. Dome C is actually quite far from the South Pole at latitude 75°06'S (and longitude 123°23'E)
The 'dome' is the highest point in those parts of Antarctica, at about 3260m, but don't take your mountain climbing gear yet: it's dead flat in all directions as the slope is actually unnoticeable by eye. Dome A(rgus) is the highest part of the ice plateau at 4200m and the highest mountain of Antarctica, Mt Vinson, tops at 5140m in the Transantarctic Range.
Right: Stefania in front of the Dome C distance sign pole. Computed by me and built by the cook, 1996.
What's the difference between Dome C, Dome Charlie, Dome Circée and Concordia ?
Dome C is the name of the area defining the top of the plateau in those parts. Due to its extreme flatness, it can be determined with an accuracy of only about 20km2.
The Americans who ran a few summer campaigns there around 1975~1977 called it Dome Charlie and the name Dome Circe can be found on a few old French maps. The American summer camp was actually about 40km from the actual Concordia station. Charlie is just 'C' in radio transmission alphabet.
Concordia is the name of the franco-italian research station located at Dome C whose construction began in 1996 and which begins winter operation in 2005. Yes, the name's been chosen starting with a C on purpose.
Is Dome C the coldest place on Earth ?
Almost. The temperature goes down to -84°C in winter, which is colder than at the south pole due to the higher altitude of Dome C. But the Russian station of Vostok has experienced colds of -90°C and Dome A, the highest part of the Antarctic Plateau, is even colder. How much colder ? The chinese reached it in early 2005 and nobody has wintered over yet but there's an automated weather station. But wait ! Satellite measurements have shown that a place near Dome A, called Ridge A is actually even colder, down to -94⁰C ! There's even a telescope operating there since 2012...
Who were the first people at Dome C ?
A C-130 part of the VXE-6 flight team was the first to land in those parts of the high Antarctic plateau in december 1974. Then another american C-130 brought a team of french glaciologists to perform a preliminary perforation for about two weeks. Then in the early 90s there were the first land traverses starting from Dumont d'Urville and the first regular summer camp was established in 1996. Then a new step was performed when the permanent station of Concordia started its first winterover in 2005.
What are the other permanent high-plateau stations ?
The American station of Amundsen-Scott has been operating year-round at the south pole since 1957 (the International Geophysical Year). The russian station of Vostok also started in 1957 but has lately been closed in winter due to financial difficulties. There have been a few stations that operated for some time and then closed: the american Byrd Station in western Antarctica, Plateau station, the french Charcot station in 1951-52 near Port Martin, the Japanese Dome F(uji) recently...
Is there a worse place on the planet ?
Most likely Dome A (aka Dome Argus), the top of the ice plateau, smack in the center of Antarctica. A chinese expedition reached it for the first time in January 2005 after drilling at regular interval along their path. They will attempt again this year. They plan to build a permanent station there someday !
Dome A is the highest snow dome of the continent (4200m), then comes Ridge B (a poorly defined area between Dome C and Dome A, 3800m), then Dome F, then Dome C. Dome C is the easiest (hah!) to reach, being at about equal distance from DdU, McMurdo and Terra Nova.
Right: Map of Antarctica showing a shaded topography.
Why Dome C ?
Look at the map on the right showing a shaded topography of the ice sheet. The hight plateau where the domes are located is fairly obvious (the center of the map has a lower resolution due to lack of satellite data). Various areas of interest are colored on the map showing the extraordinary interest of Dome C for science: Altitude > 3000m,
Slope < 1/1000,
Snow accumulation < 5g/cm2/year,
Auroral oval below the horizon,
Limit of visibility for geostationary satellites. So in short the site of Dome C combines a high altitude, a very flat terrain, a very low snow accumulation (and good weather), an absence of light (from auroras or people) and the possibility to communicate with geostationary satellites. Note that it's the only station combining all those advantages, while South Pole combines all the disadvantages !
Right: Map of Dome C derived from a satellite image.
Does anything live at Dome C ?
Really not much. Only a few hardened bacteria outside, whether they live here or were just carried by the wind is still an open question that doesn't seem to interest biologists very much yet. A few skuas have been seen resting there for a few hours while flying across the continent; skuas are the only birds known to fly across Antarctica and since there's not much variation in scenery, they probably come to take a closer look at the station.
How many people are there at Dome C ?
The summer camp can sleep about 54 people and the winter station 18 but the summer numbers vary greatly depending on flight schedules and arrivals of the traverses. During the summer 2005 we've had to cram 63 people for a few days and for the first winter we are 13. In the years before the start of year-round activity (2005), a small nucleus of people would arrive in mid-november to open up the station and stay throughout the entire summer campaign, usually closing in early february, while scientists usually arrive a week or so later when the camp is a bit more comfortable.
How is the station organized ?
There is a summer camp, which grew somewhat anarchically from a bunch of shelters welded together, insulated tents and containers. Then there's the new Concordia winter station about 800 meters away made of two tall buildings and a power plant on a raised snow platform. Then there are various areas: east of the station is the landing strip for the Twin Otter planes; South is a clean area where use of motor vehicle is severely restricted: pollution measurements and sensitive seismometers are located there; West of the station is a reserved clean area on the border of which the experimental telescopes are located, access is forbidden; and north is the trail the Traverse takes each year. Closer to the station are various tents and shelters with scientific experiments whose locations change from year to year. Scientists sometimes have to fight to have a tent or container where to place their experiments.
How is the station heated ?
The summer camp is heated partly by fuel stoves (in the sleeping tents) and by electric heaters. For Concordia a more efficient system has been devised: the heat coming from both the exhaust (20%) and the cooling of the power generator (80%) is recovered and transfered to a standard hydraulic system of pipes and heaters throughout the station. Thus no energy is lost. Remote science containers are heated electrically.
Right: Map of Dome C derived from a satellite image.
Can you get sick in Antarctica ?
Well, yes, but much less than in the rest of the world. During the winter most germs get quickly eliminated by our bodies so there aren't any infectious diseases and we just don't contaminate each others anymore. Cold (hypothermia and frostbites) seem the most obvious traumas but are indeed rare. Hypothermia can happen only if falling in the water or if wearing inadequate clothing in a storm, two things that cannot happen at Dome C. As for frostbites, it leaves red marks on the face of everyone every once in a while, even on very small exposed areas, like the corners of the eyes. Classic traumas like broken bones are always possible while working in exposed situations such as the top of containers for instance: there was an accident at Prud'Homme during the summer campaign, a container with several people on its roof fell to its side, one landed on his head and nearly broke his neck requiring an air evacuation via McMurdo.
The problem is that with the absence of germs during the winter our defenses weaken, and when the newcomers arrive at the start of the next summer campaign, we're guaranteed to catch a cold or some such.
Anyway the doctor is so bored that we go see him for the smallest things, just to keep him entertained.
Right: Another (failed) attempt at a breathing mask from Emanuele and Roberto. The tube would ice up quickly.
How do you protect against sunburns ?
We don't. The sun is always low on the horizon and not powerful enough to cause harm (sunglasses are often necessary though). And when the temperature is below -50°C there's never a square cm of skin exposed to it anyway. And finally there's no sun in winter.
How often do you go out in winter ?
How long do you stay outside ?
Don't you freeze your lungs ?
What clothing do you wear ?
How long can you keep skin exposed ?
Personally I go out at least once a day for the weather balloon launches, staying no more than a few minutes. Unless there's some problem at my experimental container or at the weather station, in which case it's a 2km walk. Other people stay outside a lot more, like Emanuele who does two sampling sessions outside every day, 1km away from the station. Yes, heavy breathing outside can freeze lungs like it's happened to Jeff while pulling a heavy load; it leads to a persistent dry cough. Against this we have all designed our own methods: I use a neoprene mask and add a layer of pile to warm up the air while breathing through. Others use several layers of piles, or a plastic tube... As for the clothing I often wear my Valandré down suit bought for Himalaya: it's lightweight, warm and comfortable. The problem is that it's very fragile and the feathers have moved in some parts of the suit leaving cold spots. When I need to do dirty work outside I have an IPEV issued cotton suit, very warm, very thick but very heavy. For eye protection we have transparent goggles but they ice up quickly so now the best method seems to leave a very tiny opening for the eyes and use no goggles. At -70°C temperatures any square cm of exposed skin feel like it's burning immediately and you can recognize people whose protective clothing has shifted position by the number of burn marks on their face, neck or wrists.
Although the cold triggers immediate pain on exposed skin, we paused outside in shorts at -70°C, without facemask at -78°C (and I froze my nose) and even took a dive in bathing suit in the melter at -65°C...
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.
Why do you still need people out there in winter, can't you do everything remotely ?
The main reason is equipment failure. The equipment we use is experimental, so the reliability is unknown. If we wanted a true 100% uptime like on space equipment it would cost so much more in testing beforehand. Having someone to repair the equipment when it fails makes sense. And actually the Antarctic environment is even more hostile than space; in space you have radiations, vacuum, heat elimination issues and a few extra known issues. But once you've factored them they are always the same, without too many surprises (okay, a solar flare or a micrometeorite in the wrong place sometimes). In Antarctica you can have for instance snow accumulation which is easy to remove by hand but not at all automatically.
It's unfortunate but no big surprise that the only completely remote experiment at Dome C worked 3 months on its first year and barely a month on the second one... Once there's one failure point in the chain, it's over till someone comes to kick it up the following summer.
At Terra Nova Bay they configure the station in automated mode every autumn, leaving several fuel tanks connected to a generator powering several experiments. It usually works fine, but they've been fine-tuning it for two decades. The other classic automated experiment in Antarctica are the Automatic Weather Stations which have been in operation for a good 30 years. But even those can ice up and break with the wind, and then it's the end of the data till the next year.
Right: Pascal salvaging computer equipment from the summer camp during the winter (can't order spare parts !)
Can computers work in such extreme colds ?
What about bit-rot caused by cosmic rays ?
Okay, I'm pretty sure there aren't any more cosmic rays here than in the rest of the world (maybe some more because of the altitude). You've heard about it because there are big cosmic rays detectors in various Antarctic stations thanks to the absence of ground radioactivity (4km thick of ice over a layer of old stable granite is a pretty good insulation against new radioactive basalts).
What we get a lot of are solar wind particles converging near the poles thanks to the convergence of the magnetosphere. Those charged particles (electrons, etc...), in addition to causing stupendous auroras, can indeed flip random bits inside the memory of PCs, but most of them are stopped in the ionosphere. Just to be on the safe side I use ECC memories on high-end systems, but even so there are unexplained crashes. There might be other reasons for it, for instance with the higher altitude and low humidity the cooling isn't as efficient so the CPUs and drives run very hot (unless they are outside but then you have stronger issues...). Also there are sometimes power surges or outages combined with strong ground current putting a tremendous stress on power supplies. Anyway, my high-end dual Athlon machine, which I use to backup and analyze the data from all my experiments get one month of uptime on average, so it's far from a dire situation.
For those reasons some computer parts don't last long here: fans, power supplies and hard drives are the main victims. If a computer is exposed to extreme temperatures such as -80°C it can usually survive, provided it was off at the time and you let it warm up before starting it, otherwise the cold warps the disk platters and just blows up the drive on boot. LCD screens don't like extreme cold as well, the liquid crystals freeze and stay frozen, but traditional monitors can work outdoors without difficulty. If we need an operational computer at very low temperature we have the possibility to use expensive solid state disks (well, they were expensive when I wrote that in 2005).
What's the time in Dome C ?
Without night how do you keep track of passing time ?
We use local solar time which is UTC+8, so it's 6 hours ahead of french/italian time if daylight savings are in effect there. We don't use Daylight savings to keep things simple for computers. As for keeping track, it's easy in summer: the sun is higher at noon than at midnight and rotates all around us; so we can tell the time by just looking at the direction of the sun: it's to the north at noon, to the south at midnight and when it's behind Concordia as seen from the summer camp it's time for dinner. In winter there's no sun and we certainly don't go out to follow the time by star position, no, we use NTP (Network Time Protocol) through our daily internet communications like everybody else !
Do you guys have guns and flame throwers like in the movie 'The Thing' ?
There's a rifle at DdU, locked up in the station leader's office. But last year they discovered that the shells were about 20 years expired so they threw them away. Whether the rifle's original purpose is defense of french territorial claims from foreign invaders, softening winter workers going postal or killing seals to feed the station in case of multi-year budget cuts is left as an exercise to the reader. There's no gun in Dome C but we have plenty of dynamite leftover from glaciology seismic sounding experiments. This lack of guns and flamethrowers is probably the reason why the aliens won at every 'The Thing' role game we played during the midwinter 2005. So we've ordered a batch of them for next year...