The first winter-over at Concordia

Part 1 — Preparation

"As a whole the subjects became less trusting and more suspicious of others immediately after their year in Antarctica."    — A.J.W. Taylor, Professor of Clinical Psychology, 'The Selection of People for Work in Polar Regions'.
Dome C pages:

September 2004: Meetings

The dreaded news came in early September: they want me for a winter in Dome C... Who are they ? My mother-in-law ? My lawyer ? A mean ex-girlfriend ? Nope, just the same old roman lab I worked for before. I thought I'd cut the ties a couple years before, going to work in Colorado for 3 years and then starting my own business in France upon return. But customers are hard to come by and I'd said 'okay' when they asked if I wanted my name on the volunteers list. Now that all the other volunteers have run away upon seeing the mission's specifications, it looks like I can't avoid this one. A few days later the first convocation arrives: a full day of medical tests in Milan where they want blood, urine, x-rays, brain scans, belly ultrasound ("Doctor, tell me the truth, am I pregnant or is it just beer ?"), psychological tests (hundred of questions in Italian, the last quarter of which I just answer 'A'). I spend half an hour running naked with sensor wires stuck all over my body breathing oxygen deprived air through a chewy tube. There might be other Antarctic candidates there, but I keep running from one military medic to the other with no time to breathe (unless I'm chewing the tube).

A week later I'm off to Rome for a full psychological profiling. I'm not too worried (maybe I should ?): of the various italian candidates, I'm the only one who's ever wintered over in Antarctica, so I'm kind of setting the reference. Hah! I'm assaulted by 4 cute (part of the test ?) psychologists who come wave after wave with sheets of tests to fill up, waiting patiently sitting right in front of me while I fill them up. I have to fill the exact same 900 question test as the previous week (I guess they figured out I answered at random after a while). Finally the next day I make it to the lab and actually learn what I'll have to do down in Antarctica. Nothing Earth shattering, it's mostly the same old experiments I've done before:

The team of volunteers for the 2005 winter-over in Dome C. Two of them will later change their mind and 3 more will replace them.

Right: The team of volunteers for the 2005 winter-over in Dome C. Two of them will later change their mind and 3 more will replace them.

A week later I'm in Paris for the first meeting of the Dome C winter-over team. Milan, Paris, Rome: it looks like I'm a fashion victim, and in a sense it's true, as I put a lot of time and effort in the wardrobe I'll be taking there. The difference with my sister is that my life will depend on it. We are supposed to be 16 for the winter, but already one is missing (hiding somewhere ?) and they haven't found a victim yet for the role of mechanics. There's Patrice Godon, of the French Polar Expeditions, who's the leader of the Traverse teams which carries all the heavy stuff to Dome C (fuel, food, equipment...); Nino Cucinotta, the head of the Italian Antarctic Project; Gaston Bachelard, the head doctor who tries to hush me off when I start telling our future italian doctor about all the medical trouble we had during our '93 winter-over, and a few extras. Including a Belgian microbiologist who wants samples of saliva, snot, sweat and feces before we head to Dome C. They haven't asked for a liver donation yet, but I'm staying cautious.

Who are the sacrificial victims ? There are (so far) 5 italians and 7 french; of which 3 are scientists and 9 are logistics/support:

General organization of the Concordia hierarchy
Station Leader
General ServicesHospitalScienceTechnical Services
Human Biology
Power plant
Fluids-air conditioning
Inside constructions

It's easy to tell from the names who's italian and who's french, except that I'm counted as Italian since they are the ones paying me; personally I have no idea which side I'm on... The meeting runs mostly in french with some english intermixed, since most of the italians understand french but only one french understands italian. Of the other team members, I already knew the chef and the station leader, both very nice and competent. Most of the french have already done at least one winter-over in Dumont d'Urville. Since it'll be the first Dome C winter-over, we will have to work out a rhythm for the various common activities inside the station, but this can wait till we get there. We don't even have a name for the mission: DC01 ? Concordia01 ? DC2005 ?

During the various presentations I discover the advancement of the work on the Concordia buildings. When I left 4 years ago, only the inner metal structure of one of the buildings and the feet of the other were up. Now both buildings are up and closed, looking finished from the outside; an impressive work given the conditions and the short window of time when work is possible. Only some work remains to be done inside. Actually, quite a lot of work: we expect to be able to use the winter buildings only 2 weeks after the start of the winter-over !!! I hope the timing estimate is accurate otherwise it means we'll still be sleeping in tents when the sun disappears.

Another surprise is that we'll be drinking recycled water. We'll start with a bunch of tanks of melted snow, which should last through the winter thanks to a recycling plant from the European Space Agency (ESA). The first year the recycling ratio will be only 75%, but it should be upgraded to 100% later on to emulate the conditions on board of a spaceship. Which means that we won't be drinking toilet water yet, only shower water. It's not such a great news, since it means we'll still be using the electrical toilets which turn poop into an evil flaming cloud. In other words, either we breathe it in or we drink it in.

Due to the small quantity of people during the winter, we'll have to wear multiple hats. We start to organize a search & rescue team, a surgery team and a fire team. Can the telecom guy be part of the surgery team ? Not if we need to call for help. Can the power plant engineer be part of the fire team ? Not if he needs to shut down the power fast. And so on.

Nino Cucinotta, head of the Italian Antarctic Project, showing the internals of the Concordia station.

Karim and his boss give a presentation about an experiment they've been running with an australian team to measure the 'seeing' conditions at Dome C. The 'seeing' is the quality of the sky for an astronomer. Already measured with success in summer, the australian team tried to run an automated experiment throughout the winter. It failed in dramatic circumstances, but not before revealing that Dome C is 4 times better than the previously known best site on Earth, Mt Paranal, location of the European Very Large Telescope. The astronomers are drooling all over the table talking about building a 100 meter diameter telescope in Dome C within 15 years. ONE HUNDRED METERS !?! The only potentially better site is Dome Argus (81°S-77°E) but nobody has ever set foot there as it's near the inaccessibility pole. Its higher altitude may be better for infrared astronomy but satellites seem to indicate worse wind conditions. To say nothing of its probably insane winter temperature (as if ours wasn't bad enough !). This stays in my brain and before I catch my train I drop by an astronomy store in downtown Paris where I purchase 3000$ worth of telescope and accessories in half an hour, not having the slightest idea how it works or whether it'll freeze at once. When I get home, I jump onto the 'Net where I get flamed, with reason, for trying to figure out how it works in the 4 weeks I have left before departure. But more on my first steps at polar astronomy on a separate page.

Upon returning home I begin to rack my brain for things to do during the winter. I pack up on Divx movies, MP3s and CBR comic books, all on redundant hard drives, but what else can be done during the winter ? There will be a small exercise room, a table-tennis and table-soccer game, a pool table that we aren't even sure can fit inside, a few books and that's about it. I don't expect to go jog outside as the winter temperatures can stay below -80°C (-120°F) for days at a time. The internet will be limited to 20kb per day of email communications. I have to start packing up almost right now as my luggage must be within the Italian ship before the end of October. I'll be leaving Europe on november 30th, 2 weeks later than the first people who will open Concordia for the summer campaign.

So will the winter-over happen or not ? It depends on two things: whether or not the Traverse can bring all the necessary fuel and missing equipment and whether the construction can be finished in time. The second is not critical, if work is late on the inside of buildings, it can continue throughout the winter with a reduced construction team. There needs to be 3 traverses for all the necessary equipment to arrive, but some years the ice breakup happens in late season near Dumont d'Urville, impeding the Astrolabe to reach the coast. So maybe, maybe, they'll start late and only do two traverses. Two days after the Paris meeting, the news arrives that the breakup just happened ! To think that it's only late September... Looks like we are doomed to spend the winter there, damn global warming. Jenny who's just been accepted to a Chef school in France hopes she can join me as a cook the next summer campaign.

October 2004: Fervent preparation

All my equipment must be sent by the end of October, so I have to figure out quickly where all that stuff I haven't used for 4 years is. Some is in Italy, some at my parents', some here with us, and the rest I can't figure out where. I order a new Antarctic wardrobe, which I will pick in NZ, so I hope the colors will be according to my tastes (like I care!), and more importantly that it will fit, otherwise I can pile them up. I spend hours on Internet to order film, missing photo gear, spare computer parts, astronomy books and accessories...

There are some issues to be solved between the various experiments. Will there be interferences between the Sodar of the Australian astronomy team and ours ? Is there enough helium for both Karim's balloon probes and mine ?

As previously stated, most of my duties will consist in running several experiments dealing with the Study of the Atmospheric Boundary Layer Environment at Dome C (nickname: STABLEDC) with the following objectives (most of the following comes from a presentation of my boss, Stefania Argentini):

Sub-surface — Energy and radiation budget
Radiative budget
  • Incoming and outgoing shortwave and longwave radiation.
  • Net Radiation
  • Albedo
Radiometer CNR-1 (Kipp and Zonen) with two pyranometers (CM3, up and down) and two pyrgeometers (CG3, up and down).
Sub-surface energy fluxes, snow temperature profiles
  • In Summer: when the main sources of heat transfer in the ice is the absorption of solar radiation.
  • In other seasons: when the solar radiation is negligible and the heat conduction plays a major role.
  • Test the parameterization for energy fluxes into the snow
  • Snow heat fluxes
Fluxes into the snow will be measured with conventional HFP01 heat flux plates at depth of 0, 5, 15, 30 and 50 cm
Energy budget Turbulent fluxes (Heat, Latent, Momentum) A 3m mast with mounted sonic anemo-thermometer mod. USA-1 (Metek) and fast response Lyman-alpha hygrometer (only summer)
Surface layer
  • Wind and temperature in the surface layer
  • Comparison between results obtained with different fluxes parameterizations (gradient method, eddy correlation, etc).
13m Tower with thermometers, hygrometers and wind probes settled at 1.25, 2.5, 5, 10 and 13m.
  • Thermal structure of the ABL
  • Boundary layer depth
  • High resolution horizontal and vertical velocity profile)
A triaxial Doppler mini-sodar (3500-4000-4500 Hz), Range 12-400m, Resolution 13m
  • Aerosols profile in the ABL
  • Aerosol phase (liquid water or ice crystal)
  • Particles size distribution.
Micro-lidar at 532 nm wavelength vertically pointing. Range 150-300m.
Microwave radiometer
  • Development and break down of atmospheric inversions over the course of time
  • Temperature
Passive Microwave radiometer (MPT 5) by Kipp&Zonen. Range 0~500 m

'Noisy' building of Concordia: refectory-kitchen, free-time, storage, offices, workshops (the power plant is in a separate container building outside).

'Quiet' building of Concordia: science laboratories, sleeping area, storage, offices, hospital. (Images Inner Planning, Architect Gianluca Pompili).

November 2004: Shipping

As I renew my knowledge of atmospheric measurements I start to pile up my personal equipment for the year. I raid the local climbing store for their thickest socks and undergarments, indoor sport equipment and other fun accessories.

On November 4th I put my computer, spare clothing, books, telescope, extra toothbrushes and lots more stuff inside a big wooden box built for the occasion, load it onto the car with the help of two other people and drive all the way to Ravenna to load it onto the Italica. The box should reach me sometime in January. In mid-november I have a phone conversation with Karim who's just about to head off to Dome C, 2 weeks before me. A week before departure I finally learn how much I'll be paid and I try to figure out what to do with the various administrations. One last trip to Rome to learn how to launch balloon probes and to pick up early Xmas presents from the family and I count the days and then the hours before departure.

Left: 'Noisy' building of Concordia: refectory-kitchen, free-time, storage, offices, workshops (the power plant is in a separate container building outside).

Right: 'Quiet' building of Concordia: science laboratories, sleeping area, storage, offices, hospital. (Images Inner Planning, Architect Gianluca Pompili).

C-130 on the Christchurch airport, ready for departure to Antarctica (photo Emanuele Salvietti).

November 30th 2004 — Departure day

Right: C-130 on the Christchurch airport, ready for departure to Antarctica (photo Emanuele Salvietti).

Early morning in Briançon, we wake up with snow falling outside, somewhat of a problem since we need to drive over the Mongenevre Pass to reach the airport in Turin. The car keeps sliding off the road in each curve as the road has not been plowed yet. After 4 stressful hours we make it to the airport to discover that everybody in Italy is on strike and many things don't work. I knew about the strike and had to advance the first flight by 12 hours to avoid it. Meaning I now have to wait 12 hours at the airport in Frankfurt. Fortunately it's not hard to spot the other Antarcticians coming from other italian cities wandering about the airport: most already wear their bright red Antarctic garments ! Two boring long flights to reach Sidney, a few more hours waiting and flying to Christchurch and we are almost there.

At Christchurch I head to the Antarctic Office to pick up my equipment... and I'm not on the list. Apparently they've forgotten me. I rummage through returned bags to get some used clothing of previous people and end up with a decent pack, still mildly pissed off. This year the efficiency has gone down the drain: I learned about my pay only a week before leaving (yes, fortunately I'll get paid) and I received and signed the contract the day before departure.

A car on the sea ice of the Bay of Terra Nova.

Left: A car on the sea ice of the Bay of Terra Nova.

Off to Antarctica we go, except that the airstrip on the sea ice of Terra Nova Bay has just been carried away by a long wave. We can't land there anymore with the C-130, so let's add one leg to the trip by going through McMurdo where the landing on the Ross ice shelf is always possible. People on board the C-130 act in waves: sometimes everybody is asleep or bored in their books, but when someone starts getting excited near a window ("An iceberg !"), everyone gets up and starts fighting for the view from the tiny windows.

We land at McMurdo where the greeting is, as usual, just plain weird. 3 buses are waiting to move us 50 meters to the Twin Otter, where we are not allowed to walk. The information meeting happens 3 meters from the buses whose drivers won't turn the engines off. We are told not to take pictures, not to walk around and not the use the bathroom (they quickly relent on the last one). Half of the group boards the Twin Otters and helicopters bound for Terra Nova while the others will wait 4 hours for the next flight. I'm not sure which is better, I wouldn't mind spending some time in the map room of McMurdo, but not if it's to have people constantly nagging us...

The Pinguinattolo, hangout building of BTN (photo Sergio Tugnoli).

Right: The Pinguinattolo, hangout building of BTN (photo Sergio Tugnoli).

Terra Nova, beautiful weather as usual, plenty of people outside in T-shirts. I'm still deaf from the C-130 flight and pay a visit to the doctor who has all his equipment in the corridor while redoing his damaged floor (the plastic tiles froze and broke during the winter). The chef is the same as before and many of the people haven't changed much, with the notable exception of Mario Zucchelli, the efficient and feared head of the Italian Polar Project who died recently. It probably explains why there are now some people enjoying the scenery instead of running around carrying stuff and acting busy. We arrive in late afternoon and I'm not late in hitting the sack. Either nobody was snoring in the bunk beds or I had way too many hours of flying to recover from.

In the morning we discover that all our equipment for Dome C is still here, having waited for the last 3 weeks to be flown to Dome C. We sort out the most pressing stuff, hoping to have one of the first flights, but there's only one plane, two crews and they are 11 flights late so far, even though they fly continuously. Apparently it may take a few more days before we can finish the trip, and even more for our equipment. Never mind, Terra Nova looks like a vacation camp compared to Dome C.

The bay of Terra Nova visible through a hole in some ice.

Left: The bay of Terra Nova visible through a hole in some ice.

In the afternoon we take a short trip to the atmospheric science camp behind a nearby hill, and just as we reach it they call us back saying that we are to get ready for our flight. Dinner, a shower and a short nap later we board the Twin Otter at 2am with 8 people, 2 pilots and half a planefull of boxes and bags. The trip is uneventful, with a startling view over the Trans-Antarctic Range. We do a short refueling stop at Midpoint Charlie, warmer than last time but not as welcoming: last time there was a team of americans with coffee ready there, this time it's totally empty except for piles of kerosene drums and a tiny emergency tent for two. After 5 hours we reach Dome C at 3am (local time) on December 4th. Read on to the 2nd part of the story, December.