Text and pictures © 2004-2021 Guillaume Dargaud
Last updated on 2020/03/19
"Brrr, it's cold today." — most overheard sentence at Dome C.
Left: Concordia station from the American mast (west). From left to right: a small drilling operation for winter water, construction equipment containers, the electric station next to the two towers of Concordia Station, the main summer camp (in the back), the large white tent of the drilling platform, the sleeping tents, the green AASTINO automated astronomy experiment and the wooden astronomy platforms.
December 4th — We are greeted upon landing from BTN by some of the few people still standing at 3am; they steer us from the airplane towards the mess tent. And, yes, it's a mess. It's saturday evening and it's apparently the first party they've had since most of the team got here 3 weeks before. Consequently we find a bunch of sweaty drunks jumping on a dance floor made of plywood boards in a smoky tent with trash bags blanking out the windows. After 15 minutes the last of them have collapsed in bed. Us 8 newcomers are soon following their example (of hitting the sack, not of getting sweaty drunk).
I can't sleep, partly due to the altitude, partly to the time shifts and mainly to one of the 7 other guys sleeping in the tent, this one snoring wholeheartedly. After a while I get up and shake him awake. Wrong move, it's my future winter station leader. Now I can only hope he's not susceptible.
In the morning I feel quite alone on base. I'm up early due to all the time zones we went through while everybody else is swearing off either beer or altitude sickness. Jean-Louis has already prepared delicious brioches and sugar pies. I also get all the latest Dome C gossips from him.
Right: Typical Antarctic practical joke: take someone's clothing, soak it, and hang it out to 'dry' outside.
Some time after that, Alessandro and Angelo, my colleagues, wander out of bed and we start getting organized. You'd think that in a place like Dome C it would be easy to pick up a place where to place an experiment; after all it's flat and wide, right ? Well, it's not that easy. First there is the forbidden area south-west of the station. Then there is the need for power cables, it's not easy to place (or even find) one km of electric cabling. Then there are some experiments that are incompatible: nothing that moves can be near the seismology, no metals can be near the geomagnetic experiments, the two sodars must be far from each others, we must be up the dominant winds like most others, there aren't too many containers to share and, worst of all, there's actually a power shortage on base: with 54 people currently living and working in the station, you need lots of power for heating, cooking, washing machines, melting water, construction work, computers, scientific experiments and much more. The builders are rushing to get the station finished before the winter so they need power, but we also want to install and calibrate our stuff before my colleagues leave... Anyway everything gets talked about quickly and we settle on some compromises: we'll put Karim (astronomy) and my experiments together so we can share the heating, the power line, the container and the network feed. Also in winter we'll walk there together to minimize the danger involved with walking in the dark at below -70°C temperatures.
Left: Riding 3km to work on a sled pulled by a snowmachine.
We can't start our experiments right away because we need to confirm with some other scientists coming in a few days to see if it's okay to share the area. So in the meanwhile I pay a visit to the glaciologists who are nearing success: after 8 years of work they've dug through more than 3000 meters of ice and are nearing bedrock. Only a few more days and the last 60 meters will be done. I walk in as they retrieve one of those deep core, dripping in drilling fluids and they work with great attention to extract the ice core from the borer. At those depth the pressure and the geologic heat gradient coming from below heat the ice down to -4°C, so the ice is wet and freezes as they pull it up through the 3 kilometers of ice above at -53°C; they have to go through complicated maneuvers to get it out of the borer, warming it with a kerosene bath at -4°C. This ice is the oldest extracted in the world so far, dating back to an invaluable 950 thousand years ago. They expect to find liquid water in the last few meters and keep drilling ever more cautiously.
Right: A warmer way to ride to work: inside the Kassbohrer.
With Angelo and Alessandro we walk around the possible sites for our camp and we get near the impressive construction site of the twin towers of Concordia. In the morning I pay a visit to the construction team working inside Concordia. The work done in the last 4 years is impressive, the buildings are up and closed, the power plant is running tests, the water and heating system is ready to go, the rooms are wired. But there's still lots to do before we can move in in only a few months: as I walk around I keep having to step over extra power cables, doors lying on the ground, construction equipment, tools and workers bending in all positions working in corners. I lift the temporary board blocking the roof to get a good view from the summit.
The next day we are still waiting for completion of our container (we asked for some modifications and additions, like tables and beefed heating for the winter) and permission from a team of american scientists to set up our instruments next to theirs. In the morning I do a 11km walk from building to shelter to isolated flag to remote snow mound to perform GPS measurements. At lunch with Alessandro and another italian we continue a pull-up contest started the day before. And in the afternoon I test and configure our two data analysis computers in a temporary office: the old cold lab of the glaciologists. Even with some heating we are freezing inside. I wish I had the latest pentium, at least it would keep the room warm !
On thursday 9th december, I break the main lens of my camera, I break my toothbrush and I loose my leatherman tool. I'll let you guess which one is a tragedy (hint: it's not like I need to kiss anyone for the next year). Hopefully I'll get replacements before the end of the summer campaign. The summer camp is hitting overpopulation record. For a few days we are 61 on base, and the camp is meant only for about 54 people. So some have to squeeze into corners, for instance sleep in unheated tents or the surgery room. We also have to save on power and showers. The various research groups fight for the use of the only 4 snowmachines on base. Maybe we should ask for a donation from Yellowstone NP. The Concordia workers use a standard pickup truck (with smaller tires than most rednecks in Colorado), two snowcats, a crane and a bulldozer.
We begin the installation of our equipment, with ups and downs. The Sodar is quickly operational but we get lots of weird echoes (from the 35m tower just 100 meters away, from the Australian sodar a km away or from self induction between our own antennas ?), the lidar is installed in a few minutes and doesn't work (as usual), the meteoflux takes longer to install and its UPS is acting up. We dig up the batteries of the remote weather mast and try to reload them but the acid appears to be frozen solid, never mind the promise of the makers that they would work down to -100°C. I just hope it doesn't mean it's been colder than that during the past winter !
Left: One of the many outhouses of the summer camp. After using the 'incinolet' burners for a few years, we reverted to the good old proven technology of the bucket. Large drums are under the outhouse and simply freeze due to the low temperature. They are then brought back to DdU via the Traverse and, I guess, emptied in the sea.
The construction of Concordia continues. The fridges for the kitchen all have they glass doors broken, probably from the cold of the past winter while in storage. There are changes of plans almost daily, up to the point where the architect says 'Enough!' and refuses to implement new modifications. The electrical generator of Concordia is started on december 11th and so does the boiler and the heating of the first building. People can now work inside wearing normal work clothes, which speeds up operations.
Right: The Dome C 2004/2005 summer team and Concordia construction team (photo Sergio Tugnoli).
The other research groups are progressing as well. The astronomers Karim and Eric perform the first fringe interferometry ever done in Antarctica but a week of hazy days hinder their progress. A new seismograph is installed. Several pumps are installed for atmosphere chemistry measurements. Our closest neighbors should be two americans who are supposed to arrive 3 days after us to setup experiments on the 35m mast, but one missed his plane in Christchurch and the other missed it in McMurdo. They arrive a week late. In the meanwhile two italians take over the mast, installing a heavy radiometer partway up thanks to a lot of heavy action from the crane. Unfortunately, two days later they have to take it down because of mechanical problems: the 140kg box is mounted on a vertical arm that can move it into various positions; this arm is apparently locked into position. After gutting it down in the lab, they figure out what the problem was and put it back up, this time for good.
Along with several other scientists we work temporarily in what used to be the cold lab of the Epica project which they don't use anymore. Not only does it look like an industrial freezer, but it also feels like one. Despite the red-hot heater in the middle of the long room, we are freezing in the corners. It's temporary... until Concordia is completed !
Left: Setting up the Meteoflux and CR10 systems.
This morning it took almost an entire day to set the time on a computer. Why ? Short answer: because it's Antarctica. Long answer: the computer is a CR10 embedded system doing data acquisition outside, its time needs to be set just once with another computer connected through a cable then an adapter then another cable. There's no power over there so we decide to use an old laptop. The program needed for the time update is on a DVD, and the laptop lacks a DVD player. We first try to use a crossover cable to connect it to a DVD enabled non-laptop computer. But we have forgotten the PCMCIA adapter at the lab, about 1.8km away. Then we decide to use a USB key for the transfer. The laptop is running Win98 and asks us for the driver for the USB key. After we find the driver (also on DVD), copy it onto a primitive floppy and fail to install it we finally decide to burn a CD just to transfer the time update program. End of phase one, up to now we were warm.
Now we take the laptop outside. Did I say it's a 6 year old laptop ? Its battery dies by the time we reach the mast, about one minute later. Back to the container. We first extend a power cord but it's too short by five meters; we then take a UPS but can't connect the laptop because the plug is not the right one. So we cut open a PC power cable and a multiple plug and make an adapter. So we now run outside with a 20kg UPS connected to a multiple plug connected to the laptop transformer connected to the laptop connected to the adapter for the CR10. By the time we get there (one minute) the UPS beeps and dies of unknown causes. Back inside. We stop the radiometer to use its own UPS, which works properly, unplug and replug everything and go back outside, connecting the laptop on the CR10.
This time it works. Or does it ? It's so bright outside I can't even tell if the screen is on or not. Back inside. We design an old-fashioned hood with a black garbage bag and tape. Back outside. With gloves or even dry cold fingers it's impossible to use the touchpad properly. After fidgeting with key sequences (one point for Windows vs Macs) I get the program started. It can't get a communication established. I discover with horror that the program, just installed, is not configured for communicating with the CR10. Back inside and deep in the documentation we look. After configuring the program we have the choice between going for lunch or trying again. We try again.
So we run back outside with everything, alt-key sequences memorized, but when we connect the thin serial cable, it breaks like raw spaghetti. Anybody remembers the pinout of a DB9 serial connector ? So we skip lunch, make a new cable out of some teflon wires, weld the Tx/Rx once or twice and this time I get the communication up and running and manage to update the time before the mess of (other) cables hardens and starts breaking. End of phase two. Do you want me to relate our afternoon attempts to synchronize the time on the various PCs ? I didn't think so, but you can add a couple more hours to the total. In the middle of the afternoon we played with a boomerang for 10 minutes to cool down the nerves, with good reasons. As the italians say: "C'est l'Antarctique !"
Right: Pyranometer (snow radiation measurement) with view of Concordia.
On Dec 14th most of our experiments are up and running. We only need to fine tune some settings and check the first data pouring out of the instruments. We fought with the lidar for a while before understanding that the user's manual (a handwritten post-it) was right: you have to press stop to get its data and press start when you are finished. Logical no ? It's the same lidar than 4 years ago, the one that worked only 2 hours back then. I thought it was going to be the same thing this time and I was ready to abandon it far from the lab in fear it was going to start sending laser blasts all over. Now it works, good. We also dig a hole in the snow to half bury a large instrumentation box below the measurement mast. In the morning the wind picks up and the box ends up completely covered in snow. The sodar shows some interferences on one of its channels and we are trying to solve that but the first results ain't bad at all.
Who said there isn't any liquid water in Antarctica ? This afternoon the temperature was -26°C while we were finishing installation of the sodar antennas. The base of the antennas is made of painted steel, dark blue. At a certain point I noticed that the snow on the steel base was melting on the side of the sun, for there were drops of liquid water forming on it. It wasn't an illusion and that's just an example on why you cannot get any meaningful temperature reading from a thermometer in the sun. Still, it was the first time I saw liquid water outside at Dome C.
Left: The atmospheric science field camp: our container is the white one. In front of it the tiny wooden box is the Lidar, the 3 Sodar antennas are on its right, with the radiometer just in front and the Meteoflux and CR10 systems are farther to the right. The flags delineate the forbidden clean zone.
Still on Dec 14th, the Twin Otter has been here for 2 days. Snow and poor visibility at Dumont d'Urville turn the flight into a liability. Several people who were supposed to fly out are still here, waiting aimlessly in the dining hall (which doubles as embarkation hall). There are the two Australians from the AASTINO project, their work ready for a winter of automated activity (although they were welding and debugging hours before taking off at 4 in the morning); and also several French who have other work to do at DdU. There are talks of shifting the flight schedules, so my italian colleagues may leave earlier than expected.
Right: One of the main activities of some [anonymous] people seems to have been breaking snowmachines. At night they are connected to a horizontal pole via an electrical outlet so their engines stay warm, and in the morning many people with not enough coffee in their veins seem to forget the plug and drive away, crashing the pole on themselves. Here Antonio, the mechanics, fixes a broken windshield with aluminum tape.
You'd think that in the emptiness of Antarctica, there would be perfect silence and loneliness. So far I haven't met the latter; the station is overcrowded, with a record 62 people today due to the grounded Twin Otter. All the tables in the lab are taken by a bunch of PCs and several laptops folded on top of each others; we eat in two shifts; newcomers sleep in closets; we are about 7 scientists using the old 'cold lab' of the Epica project as our laboratory. Even the 'end of the road' at the limit of the forbidden area is crowded: there's a 35 meter mast put up by americans a couple years ago and they just arrived to run other satellite calibrations. We set up our container and our experiments next to them, then two italians set up a large heavy radiometer some way up the mast and Karim will soon install tiny sensors all over the mast. So the Antarctic silence is not what it used to be: of course our Sodar is one of the most annoying sound around, but it's being perturbed by something else, maybe noise, maybe electronics problems. Yesterday I stood outside for half an hour trying to figure out if there were some unwanted echoes disturbing the Sodar measurements. And in half an hour I had maybe 2 minutes of silence: snowmachines coming and going, heavy crane activity at Concordia a km away, backing snowcat beepers, loud italian laughing and joking, hammering inside the container, vibrating guy lines in the wind and more. In other words I froze my ears off.
Left: One of the empty sleeping tents during the day. My bed is the 2nd on the left. 8 people sleep there in summer and there are 5 such tents plus some other accommodations.
In summer it's hard to form close ties with people. Two weeks after we arrive, already some people are leaving, including my two colleagues Angelo and Alessandro. Other people come and go and with two flights daily it's sometimes hard to keep a head count, new faces or old faces pop up unexpectedly. Three of the future winterers (winter-overers ?) arrived at the very beginning of the summer campaign (Karim, Jean-Louis and Michel), then Emanuele and I arrived in early december; for Xmas there are two additions coming from Dumont d'Urville: Claire and Pascal.
Angelo and Alessandro leave only a few hours after we finish installing the equipment, the last piece being a high frequency hygrometer that wouldn't work properly. You know Murphy's law that states that "anything that can go wrong, will" ? Well, in Antarctica it's even more so. Here you can bring 5 computers as backup for a single one, but the thing that failed in that case was a simple wire on a serial line. Tracking down problems in Antarctica is a fine art. A brutal fine art I should say, when you are outside kneeling in the snow for hours with a multimeter whose display you can't read, a laptop that needs to be kept in a box, frozen electric cables that break like raw spaghetti and anything else that can complicate your life, least of which is handling tiny screwdrivers with big gloves (I'm not impressed by magicians handling cards anymore).
Left: Angelo showing how to use a laptop in Antarctica. Either that or it's the cardboard slums of Dome C.
As long as I'm into failing equipment, we brought 3 UPS power supplies; after a week two were dead. While I was trying to diagnose one of them, I installed the UPS monitoring software on one of our acquisition PCs and connected it to the failing UPS with a serial cable. I start the program and get a message box pop up on another of our acquisition machines: "shutdown of computer such or such in 30 seconds". Time for me to understand what was going on, our main data acquisition server was rebooting, with several days of data lost. Now I'm going to say something bad about APC, the maker of those UPSes: a company that comes out with a program that can shut down your computer without as much as a confirmation immediately after a default install deserves to be sued into bankruptcy. And the programmers who wrote the piece of garbage that is supposed to "monitor and protect®" your equipment are the worst kind of idiots. Never mind that the UPS cycled the power more times than it normally takes to fry a power supply, and for no reason. "Protect your equipment" must be a practical joke (reminds me of another: "To serve and protect").
Angelo and Alessandro's departure is followed the next day by Ubaldo who finished the re-installation of the meteo tower. Setup first in 2000 it ran successfully during the 2000 winter but it was botched the next summer by a technician who thought the automated acquisition system was dead when it simply had the display set to a low contrast. He deleted one year of data and, even worse, completely rewired the system in a screwed up way that acquired two years of garbage data.
"Million year old frozen carrots discovered 3km deep under the Antarctic ice." — Headline from Italian newspaper Corriere della Sera.
Right: Laurent removing the drill (with the ice core inside) from its shaft.
Left: Putting the drill in a kerosene bath to warm it up without melting it.
On dec 21st the glaciologists call it quits. They stop at a depth of 3270.20 meters, about 7 meters from a layer of liquid water, itself about 2 meters deep. How do they know this ? They used a method derived from seismology to determine the various layers: explosives were detonated near the surface, and an acoustic measurement recorded from the drill deep down can tell the difference between the direct sound, its echo on the water and its echo on the ground. Knowing the speed of sound in the ice one can make precise measurements. The dynamite was brought to Dome C in the bed of a pickup truck, now used as ferrying bus between the summer camp and the Concordia construction site. The pickup itself, with its load of explosives, was brought by the Traverse, tied on the roof of a container, just in case it went 'Boom!'. The glaciologists originally wanted to reach the liquid layer, then lower the pressure of the drill fluid column to admit some water back in the hole from below and let it re-freeze, thus sealing the hole. But the day before they were planing to do that, the steering committee ordered them to stop to avoid contaminating the water with the drilling fluid. So instead of throwing a party to celebrate the world's oldest ice, they are a bit miffed.
Right: Cleaning the drill with a kerosene spray.
In the afternoon they ask me how it's possible to photograph some solid inclusions they found in some of the deepest cores. They show as little dark or reddish specks, up to a cm big, embedded within the ice. With my broken lens, lack of digital camera and lack of accessories (which will arrive in about 2 weeks), I begin to ask around for accessories to do such an image, thinking of using tight illumination beam technique, but then Tom takes some good shots with his bellow and macro accessories before I can be ready.
Left: The drill just out of the hole, with a core of ice embedded inside (you can see drilling fluid dripping out on the right). Photo courtesy of EPICA.
In the evening the glaciologists throw a 'deep down' success party in their workshop. We are treated to usual appetizers and a huge bottle of champaign. The big plus is that the ice cubes are actually little flakes of 900 000 year old ice, shaved off some of the latests cores extracted the previous days 3270 meters under our feet. It makes lots of tinkerbell noises as it melts when the bubbles of air trapped inside at a pressure of more than 300 atmospheres are released suddenly. I take it off the glass and suck on it to find a strong taste of kerosene, the main component of drill fluid ! Besides possible intoxication with drill fluid, we joke about discovering million year old deadly alien germs, suddenly thawed back into existence into a glass of champaign and ready to contaminate the world !!! Slim chance... maybe.
Right: A very large ice crystal is visible inside this ice core; more exactly the boundaries between them is visible, the one on the left because some air got in during the removal process, and the boundary on the right is visible in incident light. This crystal is a good 30cm in diameter (Photo courtesy of EPICA).
Some time later the glaciologists make a presentation of their whole campaign and some of their results (some not official yet). The temperature at the bottom of the hole is 2.2°C and they stopped 5 meters from a one meter thick liquid layer after a little scare when they locked the drill in the wet ice. This high temperature comes from geothermal radiation seeping through the crust of the Earth. The ice at the bottom melts slowly, 0.7mm per year, meaning we are going down ! But at the same time there's a snow accumulation of about 10cm every year on the surface. As the snow goes deeper it's squashed by the pressure and overall the plateau stays even. The age of the ice pulled from the bottom of the hole is estimated to 950 thousand years ago, the oldest ice in the world, almost double what the russians got at Vostok thanks to the better location of Dome C. What does that represent ? Well, it's a full 4 new glaciological cycles to add to the 4 already known and their durations and conditions of triggering are different so they'll bring a whole new insight in the study of paleoclimatology. A study which has immediate consequences on the understanding of the current raise of the CO2 level and the impact of global warming.
Left: 1 mm sized inclusion of organic (?) material in a 950 thousand year old ice core (Photo courtesy Epica).
It is estimated that Antarctica has been covered with ice for at least 50 million years (some time after the demise of the dinosaurs), so it's been melting from the bottom of the ice shelf for a long time. The water under Dome C probably drains into a sub-glacial lake called Lake Concordia, about 20 km downhill from here; and then off to the sea via some not yet identified subglacial river networks. As the pressure increases the ice merges into crystals with increasing size with the depth; at the bottom the crystals are up to 55cm in diameter, with boundaries visible with the naked eye. And the dust concentrates on those boundaries, with specks of mud visible. Maybe some time later I'll describe the day to day operation of the drill... So the Epica drilling is over, but they'll still send some people in the coming years to monitor how the hole changes shape with the pressure and the flow of ice and, maybe, to finish the last few meters.
Right: The tunnel under the ice leading to the seismology cave.
2004/12/23 — After lunch the americans begin to install the Xmas lights and decorations while I go with the seismologist who needs to make some measurements inside his instrumentation cave. He has two seismometers inside a hole twelve meters deep under the snow surface. You go down a small ladder, then walk 40 meters along a sloping corridor, then two more ladders take you down to an iron walled room with a trapdoor to its side (it's actually a vertical container). The cold in there is staggering: -53°C with a very high humidity, our breathing literally freezes in front of our eyes. I shiver thinking that in winter we'll have a temperature 30°C colder yet... After 10 minutes in there our nose and fingers are cold bitten and we retreat to the warm sun outside (it's a balmy -25°C). After warming up a few minutes I go back underground to take pictures inside the tunnel: a diffuse blue light radiates through the walls of ice, quite visible after the eyes have become accustomed to the darkness. Past visitors of the cave have carved various messages on the walls, the only one I can think of being: "Let me out !"
Left: Going down inside the seismology cave.
I spent friday installing a optical fiber between my experimental container and the astronomy shelter while others were preparing the Xmas meal and decorating the mess hall. The fiber was turned extremely rigid from the cold and we were very afraid it might just break off. We first tried to unroll it from a slow moving snowmachine but it was too inconvenient. Eventually we just walked for a kilometer with the roll held by Carlo and me, with Karim unrolling it. Then about half an hour of installation, cabling and settings on each side, with talk-radios that wouldn't work from inside the containers so each time we changed something we had to run outside to inform each other, and we had the first ever optical fiber LAN in Dome C. It's not the first ever in Antarctica. Reminds me that a few years ago I was contacted by an American company looking into the possibility of running a fiber between South Pole and Dome C, the reason being that South Pole needs a very high data throughput thanks to some wholesome experiments, but the geostationary satellite are below the horizon, and the communications via other satellites are not reliable. I think that project was scraped but I'm sure it would have worked, at least if you can extrapolate our little one km fiber to the 1500 odd kilometers to the Pole. The problem was legal: according to the Antarctic Treaty you are not allowed to abandon anything in Antarctica, and laying a fiber on the ground to be covered with snow is considered just this.
Cenone della Vigilia di Natale
Tagliatelle aux Fruits de Mer
Boudin blanc en Brioche - Sauce Madere
Escargots a la Provençale
Dinde aux Marrons
Bûche de Noël
Pranzo di Natale
Avocat au Crabe et Saumon Fume
Farfalle au Speck
Langouste sautée au Massale - Riz
Millefeuille de Tournedos à la Crème
Fond d'Arichaut Duchesse
Marie Charlotte au Chocolat et Truffes
Giftmas day — On the 24th there was a humongous dinner followed by another overwhelmingly large lunch the next morning. And in between those, a cocktail celebration with gift offerings from our Italian overlord administrators, an evening of decadent dancing in Sorel boots and a short night of snoring it off. The Concordia workers were welding and fixing things till 19:00 and we started the appetizers at 19:30, so there was a kind of confused competition for the only 3 showers available. After those two 7-odd course meals, I took a very necessary walk to the Atmos containers to digest all that food. The day is superb, no wind, a warm -23°C (it's as hot as it gets here, so we might as well enjoy it). The only hitch being that I found one of my experimental acquisition PCs had rebooted so I had some troubleshooting to do. One of the best presents we got was a box of hand-made chocolates from the baker in Dumont d'Urville, sent on the latest flight.
There aren't too many rests days in Dome C: the logistics personnel and the Concordia workers normally only get the sunday morning off, so it's nice for them to have two almost full rest days in succession. For us scientists it's easier, we basically work whenever we want, which sometimes means from breakfast till 6am if something breaks down, if a report needs to be finished or if you are an astronomer like Karim. Not that there's any night here yet, but when the sun is lower on the horizon it makes his job easier. On sunday dec 26th we hold an open door event at the 'end of the world' by the American mast: the group of Rich and Tom who do snow property measurements for calibrating satellite measurements, the group of Anselmo and Giovanni who measure fluxes through the snow layer, and myself. We have about 15 visitors in the afternoon, but some of the Concordia workers are still sleeping off the previous day !
Left: Xmas drinks before dinner. From left to right: Carlo the logistics manager, Vincent and Jean-Louis the two chefs, Mirko who puts down the tiles in Concordia and Gabrielle Walker the journalist. There's italian, swiss, french and british. Photo Sergio.
"The necessary is done, we're working on the urgent and for the rest we are waiting for the Traverse." — Jean-Paul Fave, construction leader of Concordia.
I pay another visit to the Concordia construction site and what a change in 3 weeks. The buildings that were empty except for some tubes and heaters are getting fleshed out: inner walls have been put up in most rooms but they ran out of walls and are waiting for the Traverse. They've begun to tile the floors which, like most things in Antarctica, is not as easy as it seems: last year they had done some rooms but the plastic tiles shattered during the winter in the unheated building, so they had to start over. The kitchen is done, the only problem was that they found all the fridges in storage had shattered glass doors (the winter cold, again). One of the 16 rooms is fully equipped, with a bunk bed and several weirdly shaped cupboards and drawer due to the polygonal shape of the room: 18 sides to the building, one double sized room for storage and 16 for people, so the walls make an awkward 20° angle. Rooms look small but functional and anyway we don't live much in our rooms in winter. They've also begun to put up the double ceilings, so there's a mess of cables hanging at every corner, fresh glue, paint or welding arcs everywhere you think of going. The buildings are turning into something extraordinary, it may not be considered a work of art, but it is, in its uniqueness and difficulty of realization. One more week before the traverse brings tons more of equipment.
Right: Not the Beaubourg center but part of the hydraulic installations within Concordia.
Dec 29th. The weather of the last week has been fantastic, no wind, permanent sun and record high temperatures allowing me to go jog without any particular protection, wearing jeans and a wool sweater. But last night I was surprised to be in a whiteout as I left the lab. Today we are supposed to go do snow measurements a few km south of the station, but it's been postponed. If you go a few hundred meters from the buildings you can't even tell the difference between the ground and the cotton-white sky and it feels like your are loosing your sense of gravity (no, no beer involved in this one).
I like being in Dome C for a variety of reasons. First of all is that you have to pass through other bases before arriving here, this way I managed to do side trips in Dumont d'Urville, Terra Nova Bay and McMurdo, sometimes as long as 2 weeks to wait for the proper flight connections. A little sightseeing before reaching Dome C is nice, particularly since there's nothing to see at all here. So why are some people coming over and over, year after year ? Carlo and Serge have done every summer campaign since 1996, Rita has been alternating every other year with Terra Nova and there are many of the Concordia construction workers who have been here almost every year. So you can guess that part of the answer is that it feels like home, with friends who almost become family after a while. Another reason is that it's even more 'Antarctica' here than on the shore. Sure penguins are about as representative of Antarctica as it gets, but the utmost purity and isolation that you feel in the center of the high plateau is unique. After being in Dome C other stations seem messy and dirty (penguin shit everywhere doesn't help)... Walking alone a few km from the buildings and looking at 100% emptiness, you know why you came.
Left: Angelo as a red stain in the middle of the Concordia construction team at the bedroom level: Andra, Christian and Luca (the traitor who decided not to stay for the winter).
An important difference between Dome C and other Antarctic stations is that it's the only station run by two countries. On every station you have a fair mix of foreigners since most scientific programs are international nowadays, but it's always a minority. Not so at Dome C where you find 45% italians, 45% french and a few others (currently one danish, one norwegian, one british, two americans and... one ouzbekistani !). The IFRTP and the PNRA, two national organizations, run the station together and the key positions are usually reserved by country: the chef and the Concordia lead builder are french, the station leader, logistics manager and doctor are italian. Foreigners who come here are always curious to see how well it works. Well, usually it does, unless one of the countries had a budget cut that year ! When I came in '96 for the first summer campaign, I was the only french who spoke some italian and, if many of the italians could speak some french, it was pretty limited so most of the communication happened in english. Now after 8 years the people who come most often have caught up with the others' language and english is only used when other foreigners are involved. The cultural differences are not only in the language but in many day to day activity details: the coffee machine around which the italians (and some of the french) gather religiously after every meal, the way italians flock together at parties, or the way they talk loudly during movies, often missing the beginning and leaving before the end, the way they jump on the soccer news printouts as they're handled from the fax. I think the main difference is in the food: there's pasta at every meal and pizza for breakfast, in addition to more classic meat and vegetables. On the other hand the french have their snails for celebration meals. This year there's a swiss-italian chef in addition to Jean-Louis so everybody's happy.
Right: Sealing water tubes with thermal insulation foam before they are installed outside.
As another example of international cooperation, we learn some time later that the chinese managed to reach Dome A around Xmas, but they needed help from the americans to evacuate a case of pulmonary oedema. Located at 4200m altitude smack in the middle of the continent, it was probably the latest major summit of the planet to be reached. It's the highest point in east Antarctica, but not really a summit as such, being as flat as Dome C. Anyway, it's still quite a performance. They will start a drilling station and plan on having a permanent winter station by 2010 (maybe a bit optimistic, but maybe I should start learning chinese...). In the meanwhile they will leave an automated weather station and a reduced version of the AASTINO automated astronomy measurement device we have here. [2020 update: no wintering over at Dome A yet, and Ridge A has been found to be even colder and now has an observatory]
On the other hand, the americans who were trying for the umpteenth time to reach South Pole with a land traverse from McMurdo failed again. In the past they had lots of trouble with crevasses on the Ross ice shelf, which they solved by filling them with snow every year; or on the Ohio Range which is harder to deal with since the ice moves faster. This year warmer than usual conditions caused lots of deep soft snow on the ice shelf and they didn't even reach the end of the ice shelf, still about 1000km from South Pole. Too bad, my guess is that we'll be seeing them someday driving through Dome C as an easier path !
Read on to the 3rd part of the story, the atmosphere science instruments.
Above: 180° picture of the summer camp, december 2004. Scroll to the right, scroll, scroll...