The first winter-over at Concordia

Part 6 — Winterover

"Some folks aren't ready to create their own adventures. Putting them in a real adventure would be like letting your prize chihuahua go play with the coyote pack at sunrise."    — Brutus of Wyde.
Dome C pages:

Alone at least

Emanuele organizing his laboratory on the 3rd floor of Concordia.

Right: Emanuele organizing his laboratory on the 3rd floor of Concordia.

The summer campaign is over. At lunch after the departure of the last airplane I have the surprise to find several pieces of mail waiting for me in the mailbox, including a roll of posters from Jenny to put on the so far empty walls of Concordia. It's the first lunch we do with the new winter rhythm: 12:00 and 19:00, and of course several people have forgotten and arrive late, which is a good way to have Jean-Louis gloom at you...

February 11th — First day of the winter-over and another hard day. We spend the afternoon emptying two containers of food. This time it's easy being down at the container as everything is in crates that just need to be picked up by the Merlo and brought to the 2nd floor of the noisy building. The problem is that the Merlo now has 4 hydraulic tubes that are leaking and won't last long. The replacements, just like everything else, won't make it before november. In the meanwhile it's leaving puddles of oil like a dog walking its favorite sidewalk; and there are only 20 liters of replacement oil left, fortunately it's environment friendly oil. We finish the day with a bucket tied under the Merlo to recover some of the leaking oil ! So today the real work happens upstairs where we receive the crates, open them, transfer their contents onto small wheeled trays then move them into the storage rooms where the frozen food and cleaning stuff are quickly itemized and sorted.

Taps popping through the boxes of wine bottles... Is that a bad sign ?

Left: Taps popping through the boxes of wine bottles... Is that a bad sign ?


Then catastrophe strikes. We find the two crates of wine not in their expected position in the +4°C container but in the back of a frozen one. An error of labeling they call it. We call it a pretty major fuck up. About one thousand bottles of good wine: Bordeaux, Bourgogne, Alsace, Provence... all frozen solid, the taps pushed out of the bottles sometimes even through the cardboard boxes, and some of the bottles broken by the pressure of the ice. I spend about two hours opening all the boxes, pulling the bottle out and putting them vertically to thaw. Tomorrow I'll put the taps back on and hope for the best. The only consolation in all this is that the bottles of rosé have a pretty neat pink color once frozen...

Stéphane, Jeff and Jean look dejected at the hundreds of frozen wine bottles.

Right: Stéphane, Jeff and Jean look dejected at the hundreds of frozen wine bottles.

February 12th — In the morning I take turns with Claire driving the Merlo or using the crowbar to get the canisters of helium out of a container. They are in the very back, weight 700kg and are not turned in a direction that allow for easy pickup with the Merlo. So we have to tie a rope around the top, pull slowly with the Merlo while someone pushes the base with a crowbar. And while we do this the temperature at noon is no more than -40°C. We ride back to the summer camp for lunch fitting 3 in the Merlo and as I'm parking next to the power plug of the garage Michel runs by screaming: "Get away ! Get Away !" I wonder what's going on and I notice he's running with a fire extinguisher towards the bulldozer which has heavy smoke coming out of the engine. After a minute and 4 extinguishers (half of which didn't work), the fire is under control. The bulldozer was too cold to start so they pushed the heating to the max and when they tried to start it, excess fuel caused the air filter to lit up. There's not much damage, only the filter to change and a good scare. The thing is that this vehicle was needed to go help the other bulldozer which got stuck in soft snow while going to grab snow for the melter. One bulldozer stuck, one on fire, the Merlo out of oil, the large crane out for the season and the small one broken all summer, it looks like we won't have much equipment left soon...

The engine of the bulldozer on fire.

Left: The engine of the bulldozer on fire.

A bit of rest

In the evening we watch a movie together still in the summer camp video room. Because of language differences in our international team, I choose a classic movie without dialogs 'Le dernier combat', but apparently more people stayed for Jean-Louis's ice cream than for the movie itself which ends up interrupted by a screeching alarm from the power plant. Later, according to prediction, the sun goes below the horizon for the first time. With Karim we follow the little bright spot it leaves on the horizon for about an hour before it re-emerges. The sky turns a deep blue but still I'm surprised not to see any stars. Karim freezes his hands just taking pictures from the window.

The first Dome C sunset ever seen by human eyes.

Right: The first Dome C sunset ever seen by human eyes.

Sunday morning, a little bit of extra sleeping in the morning but then problems start: Claire and Michel arrive looking angry. There are some disgusting yellow stains on the walls of the brand new bathroom. The weird thing is that it starts from the ceiling, but it's not what we think ! After a bit of looking in the double ceiling and then the 2nd floor, they find several broken bottles of lemon juice. In the morning I spend some time sorting my room, which I still need to clean. Pieces of equipment surface one after the other: yesterday afternoon I there was a set of eight coat hangers at the door of every room, then this afternoon it's a trash can, followed a few days later by some magnets; maybe by the end of the winter we'll have found all the equipment stashed away in the back of containers, in particular we still don't have bedside lamps. In the afternoon it's the lab which I begin to sort out: remove spare items from boxes and throw the packaging away, sort the papers, inventory the equipment, figure out some way to stack to boxes without them risking to fall over me... In the stack of technical documentation I discover pictures of Jenny that I had stashed there before departure and hadn't been able to find since. I want to put some of the posters that Jenny sent me up on the walls, but there's a deposit of dust left over from the construction mixed with oils and glue dripping from the double ceiling foam insulation and it's going to take some time cleaning it up.

Ice deposit via reverse sublimation on a rope of the american tower.

Right: Ice deposit via reverse sublimation on a rope of the american tower.

We don't really have a 'winterover rhythm' yet. Half the people sleep at the summer camp while the others sleep in Concordia and don't even bother hiking there for breakfast, having breakfast on packages of crackers instead. Many work in Concordia but a few work in both places at once, doing several return trips every day with whatever transportation mean is available (meaning often on foot). We still eat and shower at the summer camp, like yesterday when someone dropped my towel in the freezing water on the ground of the container... On monday morning they are working on the Concordia melter, which is now in its testing phase and beginning to add water to the storage tanks.

Ultra-sensitive tungsten thermometers, part of Karim's turbulence measurements. Those thermometer made of a thin tungsten wire through which runs an electric current are sensitive to one hundredth of a degree and highly reactive; that is when the very fragile filament is not broken like the one on the left of the picture which subsequently iced up !

Left: Ultra-sensitive tungsten thermometers, part of Karim's turbulence measurements. Those thermometer made of a thin tungsten wire through which runs an electric current are sensitive to one hundredth of a degree and highly reactive; that is when the very fragile filament is not broken like the one on the left of the picture which subsequently iced up !

14 febbraio Oggi dopo cena abbiamo guardato un film al campo d'estate. Quando sono tornato a piedi verso Concordia da solo verso le 11 il cielo era ancora tutto coperto, com'era stato tutto il giorno. Il sole era sotto l'orizzonte pero faceva vari riflessi colorati di giallo e arancione attraverso le nuvole blu scuro. A metta strada ho incontrato Emanuele che tornava da Concordia dove era stato a lavorare, lui preferisci dormire al campo d'estate e cosi approfittare di una buona collazione la mattina. Verso Nord, all'opposto del sole, sembrava esserci solo nuvole, pero sono rimasto un po a guardare e ho visto tanti colori di acquarello, come prove di un pittore che non avrebbe trovato il tipo di bianco che cercasse e cosi li ha provati tutti. In questo 14 febbraio vorrei dedicare molti di questi colori a Jenny.

It's official

February 15th — Today is the 'official' first day of the winter over. It was announced to the Media in France and Italy. I don't know what we've been doing for the last week, but it felt pretty much like a winterover to me, only more tiring. Yesterday we moved the content of several more containers inside Concordia. Same routine as before: someone to pilot the Merlo, someone (usually Claire) to decide what to pick up, and several people at the doors to empty the crate lifted by the Merlo and move the boxes inside the room. We started by moving the sport and computer equipment from the free-time tent to Concordia. One stop on the 2nd floor of the noisy building to remove the sport equipment in what is now the wine cellar ! Then we rush to the 3rd floor of the quiet building to remove the computer and xerox equipment and its frozen cables. Then back to the 'snow' floor to load more sport equipment. It's a bench machine, with all its weights in the box, so heavy we have a hard time putting it on the forks of the Merlo. As the driver is moving it slowly to the crate, it begins to oscillate and falls off at the feet of Claire. The box is shattered and we put all the pieces by hand inside the crate. With all the exercise we are currently doing I have no plan to assemble it in the near future. Then back to the 2nd floor to get it out of the crate where we also remove an entire room of garbage while Jean-Louis is still sorting out the mountains of food. Then off again to the 3rd floor to receive a box of books, so heavy that we cannot even move it off the forks in 4 people. Then back to the 1st floor to get several large crates of fire extinguishers and security equipment. At this point the afternoon is almost over and I still haven't done a single line of my 'official' work. I may be a software engineer, but in Antarctica I'm more of a truck driver, snow shoveler, crane operator, translator, mover and more. Fortunately nobody has asked me to install water pipes yet.

Lengthening shadow of the Concordia buildings. The shadows before the containers are from the hydraulic pillars, 'feet' of the buildings. The left containers are our food 'freezers'.

Right: Lengthening shadow of the Concordia buildings. The shadows before the containers are from the hydraulic pillars, 'feet' of the buildings. The left containers are our food 'freezers'.

Tuesday is what I could call my first rest day. There's still one important container to move in, but there's no room where to put it yet. Jean-Louis is sorting the fridge room between his cooking shifts and he hasn't finished freeing the room yet. So I sort out my lab, patch some bugs in the weather station software, inventory my equipment (only 100 weather balloons ?!? Apparently the others didn't make it in time and are still in New Zealand...), move unused equipment in corners and do some more clean up. But all in all it was a lot more restful than being outside all day moving the content of containers around.

Ever since moving into Concordia I've been sleeping very poorly. The temperature is much higher than at the summer camp, it was even above 20°C the first few days but they lowered it a bit. It was cold sleeping at the summer camp, but at least I'm used to it and it kept the relative humidity at decent values. With the heat of Concordia the humidity is next to zero and I keep waking up 10 times a night to drink and to remove dried snot clogging my nose ! There's a plan to install a general humidifier but it's so far down the list of things to do that it won't happen before next year. And there's also a worry that if we humidify the air inside the building we might end up with ice forming in some hidden corners.

Psychology session at the summer camp, Roberto is directing in the middle, wearing his usual blue overalls.

Left: Psychology session at the summer camp, Roberto is directing in the middle, wearing his usual blue overalls.


My little garden is growing nicely. After they reached Australia at the end of their summer campaign, Angelo and Alessandro sent me some seed and dirt via the return boat. They though, with good reason, that Concordia lacked some greens. So I planted basil, rughetta, iceberg salad (hah!) and a few other things in glass jars below some of the windows turned towards the north. The jars were originally used by Tom for melting pure snow before running analysis. With the permanent sun it's growing quickly, but I only have 2 months before darkness overcomes us. The thing is that I know this is illegal ! The Antarctic Treaty explicitly bringing exogenous species to Antarctica, for instance sled dogs which used to be part of every expedition a good 30 years ago are now a thing of the past. But in Dome C I think it's enough to keep to the spirit of the treaty: there's not going to be any chance of a salad seed (even iceberg !) escaping from my room and growing outside, contaminating local species ! A remote possibility in the peninsula, but no way in Dome C. And we already import fresh salad in summer, so it's not a huge difference. And the americans grow hydroponics at South Pole without raising much of a fuss. We were supposed to get our own hydroponics container which has been sitting in BTN for 9 years, but it's been deemed too heavy and low priority to bring on the ITASE Traverse, so the only fresh salad we'll have this winter will be what we manage to grow.

Emanuele, Jeff, Claire, Michel and Christophe filling various psychology tests, pushed down by cognac and coffee.

Feb 16th — After an afternoon of moving another container inside Concordia, we had to undergo some psychology tests after dinner. Now, some might say that anyone who volunteers for a winterover is by definition crazy, so why bother with the tests ? Particularly afterwards ? Well, well, well, I won't answer that question. Let's just say that maybe they saw through our lies on the selections tests, and they want to throw more at us during the winter. The official program was to do one test a month during the winterover. But now the doctor, who's not a psychologist but who's nonetheless in charge of the tests, announces that the medical headquarters back in Europe want us to do two series of tests a week... There's much grumbling at the table and in order to lure us into the backroom he has to prominently display a bottle of Cognac. The first test, labeled Lake Louise, is the most stupid of all; it's supposed to measure our acclimatization to the altitude... 2 months after the fact. And we have to answer questions like "did you sleep well ?" by 6 hour timestep. I certainly could try to take a nap at 12:00 and another at 18:00, but I still wonder what kind of meaning they are hoping to get. I already want to answer "I wish" to the item "Sex:". Anyway, with questions such as this one I don't think we are gonna keep answering those tests for very long, Cognac or not.

Snowmachine coming towards the Americans' mast.

Left: Snowmachine coming towards the Americans' mast.


Feb 17th — Important afternoon, we are moving the +4°C container of fresh food into Concordia. For about two weeks now we've been moving at least a container every afternoon. Each container's net weight can be up to 28 tons, even though we don't know the specifics of each. Each time some people need to be down at the container, loading the food onto a crate that is then brought up to the corresponding floor where it's emptied by another team. At this point, with the Merlo leaking oil like a reveler leaks beer at the Oktoberfest, we are all angry at the designers of Concordia for not including an elevator in the building. Well, there is one, but it starts from the 1st floor and not from the ground floor which is a very useful feature in case you need to bring stuff in from outside. To say nothing of the fact that the elevator is just a hook on a cable, with beams crossing on the side of the shaft ready to block the ascent of anything, so I don't think it's actually been used for anything at all yet.

So we open the +4°C container and discover that the heating inside isn't working. Well, remember that I wrote a while ago that this container arrived with the last Traverse 2 weeks ago and they had just dropped it in the middle of the field with the others, without connecting it to a power supply ? Well, someone went and connect it after noticing it. Except that the power breaker inside was off. And stayed off. So when we open it everything looks frozen. We pull out crates of solid milk and cream, wheels of cheese hard as stone, cans of beer and fruit juice that explode after just a few seconds being exposed to the lower outside temperature. Interesting experiment, there are some bottles of lemonade that are still liquid, if we unscrew the cap just a little bit, the minute drop in pressure is enough to turn the entire bottle solid in an instant. There are important things in this container, like eggs, beer or our vegetables for the winter: onions, parsnips, even a few watermelons but we don't find any potatoes, cabbage or carrots. Apparently the 3 tons of potatoes ordered by Jean-Louis have been replaced by as much bottles of stupid Perrier. Yeah, I'm astounded by the sheer stupidity of bringing water to a place already sitting on 3 vertical kilometers of solid water (a.k.a. ice). And of course most of the bottles of Perrier are frozen and have exploded, so we cut our gloves or our fingers carrying them to the 2nd floor only to put them in plastic trash cans in order to save a few of them while trying not to have melting water run down the entire building. The storage room looks like a war zone: there are shards of glass everywhere, broken bottles of fruit juice sitting in buckets, piles of soaked toilet paper everywhere to try to stave off the spills, torn cardboard boxes whose glue just broke from the cold, exploding cans spraying the bran new ceilings with juices or beer, all this in addition to tens of tons of boxes of food piled up to the ceiling all over the floor. Jean-Louis spends his afternoons there trying to put some kind of order to this mess but it's gonna take a while...

That's me coming back with my laundry from the summer camp. Night sun on the quiet building of Concordia.

Left: That's me coming back with my laundry from the summer camp. Night sun on the quiet building of Concordia.

Lidar trouble

Feb 18th — In the morning I go to my science container to take some measurements in order to make some modifications. Yesterday the Lidar was beeping in error mode yet again. Once it's too hot, the next time it's too cold, then the laser power is too weak, or the communication won't work. I'm fed up of bringing it back inside each time, pulling and damaging its frozen wires, taking it apart until it starts behaving again, then putting it back together again outside only to find out that one wire is not plugged in properly, or like today that the cold has hardened the power plug so much that it moved out of its socket as I closed the trapdoor and it blew the power breakers. I went back inside the container to a concert of beeping from the UPSs. The time it took me to figure out what was going on, run outside to the box holding the secondary breakers and already one UPS and 3 experiments were dead. Having one experiment that fails is one thing, but having it cause the others to fail is unacceptable. So I start taking it apart with the idea of making an opening through the roof of the container and putting the Lidar there, pointing up while being at the proper temperature inside, without its bulky protection case. I take all the measurements and bring the piece of optical glass acting as top protection back to Concordia to discuss the construction specifics with the technicians. When I pull it out of my pocket at lunch, it's broken. I guess I'll have to use the bottom of a wine bottle...

In the afternoon we begin to move the summer camp itself: the stocks of food leftover from the summer campaign (which will basically act as our only fresh food for the next 9 months since everything else froze), the TV+DVD player, the cleaning products and everything else we can find. The move to Concordia is planned for between monday and wednesday, only there's still no water at Concordia and we still have to go outside to take a piss (it's refreshing at night). As we were moving this stuff in the afternoon it was -40°C and felt quite cold with a bit of extra wind; as I write this the temperature (outside, not in the lab !) is my current record at -52°C and it's only 22:00, so with the usual minimal happening around 3 in the morning, I guess I'll add an extra blanket tonight... But looking at how the temperature goes down another notch each time the sun goes below the horizon, if I write something each time the temperature drops below its current record, you are going to get bored quickly.

Ice deposit on the triple window of my room in the morning.

Right: Ice deposit on the triple window of my room in the morning.

Digital camera

On the morning of the 17th I put my digital camera in my pocket as I go to work on the Lidar at the container. No, let me correct that, it's not mine, it's Carlo's camera, or more exactly the PNRA's. During the summer campaign, as I figured out that I needed some way to add images to my site I asked him to lend it to me. In the last days before departure, in November, I had tested some digital cameras and felt the need for one as I cannot process films here. I read magazine reviews and ran some tests and just couldn't find a model that I liked. They either cost a fortune, or have fewer functions than my current cameras while costing a lot more money, or just have too grave defects, like the fact that the digital Nikons use CCDs smaller than films and you need to change your lenses as well ! So I came here with a complete set of traditional cameras: my trusted Nikon F100 for all around photography (if I keep the batteries warm, it works fine even if I leave it outside at -50°C); my favorite Ricoh GR21 which is always in my pocket but which suffers the cold in a few minutes; a spare lightweight wide-angle Fujifilm; and a batteryless Nikon FE for long exposure photography. But now I have this Canon PowerShot A60. I'm just glad I didn't buy anything similar as it's a piece of garbage: the shutters stay shut or stay open at random (I just removed them), it sucks batteries in seconds (sometimes scorching my pocket), the lens locks up (requiring disassembly), you have to press 10 tiny buttons to do something as simple as an underexposure, there's no raw image storage, the lens is not parallel (and blurs the left side), and most annoying of all there's a 1 or 2 seconds delay between the time you press the shutter and the picture being taken. So on the first line above I wrote that I put the camera in my pocket and went off to work at the container where I had to run several times to the power breakers, get on all fours to plug wires, check connections and more fun activity. When I got back to my room at lunchtime, the camera was gone even though I hadn't used it. I spent 2 days retracing my steps without success and telling the others about it and when I got back to my room in the second evening... I stepped on it !

Lone walker headed for the summer camp at dinner time.

Right: Lone walker headed for the summer camp at dinner time. Image available as a free wallpaper

Between two unloading of crates into the storage rooms, Roberto and Emanuele have begun installing the sports room by assembling the various equipments. There's a multiple-use body-building machine, a bike (of the kind that doesn't go anywhere), a 'steps' machine, a bench for lifting weight and a few other items, including a stereo and jumping ropes. I brought a climbing pull-up bar that I installed this morning. Jean-Paul, the construction manager of Concordia, told me before he left how to put it up without damaging the entire building; not as easy as it seems. The building has a metal structure of vertical beams on the outside, on which are tied two layers of long composite boards from the 1st floor to the roof. You cannot drill those as they are fragile, so you have to drill the metal beams themselves. After 30 minutes in the gym room I had arms like Arnold and hadn't even touched a body building implement, holding the power drill high up against high quality steel beams did the job ! The room was originally supposed to be a windowless room, but we swapped it with the TV room which doesn't need a window. Said TV room is currently used as a wine cellar since I stored the frozen bottles there, and it smells like a bunch of winos had a hell of a time in it ! We'll move them out when we have some time... or once we finish drinking them all. BTW, an american wrote me after he saw the pictures of all the wine bottles that he couldn't believe how much wine we had. Error, those are the good bottles, for sundays and celebrations. For everyday drinking there's about one cubic meter (one ton) of wine in cardboard boxes. Does that answer the question ? And Eugene, another american, later wrote: "You see, that's how they do science in Europe !"

Bystander on snow.

The next day I come back and start my first training session, soon joined by Roberto and Emanuele who's just come for a look but not actually to sweat. 10 minutes of jumping rope followed by some weights and stretching. Nothing fancy and I'm out of breath quickly, but it's a start. Hopefully I won't be one of those wintereoverers who gain 25kg in the winter and then have to go back to civilization still wearing their antarctic clothing because their original one won't fit anymore. There's a few like this every year...

Left: Bystander on snow.

Several people are getting angry at the email problem lately. Now that Pascal is the only one fighting with the email system, it looks like he's loosing the battle. Emails disappear in both directions (so if you've written to me and never got an answer, just try again), sometimes they arrive devoid of content and some people can't seem to get a single email through. The system used is a homebrew Windows architecture with several scripts (poorly) written in Python. Incoming emails are centralized at the PNRA near Rome, and twice a day when we connect, the mass of email is filtered for length, de-spammed, zipped and transmitted as a single file, which is stupid if the communication is interrupted since it forces to redo the procedure (they've never heard of rsync). Then the file is unzipped, split and placed in the corresponding mailboxes. And the same process happens for outgoing mail. So it's completely different from standard email protocols, and the scripts have been hacked and rehacked by 10 different people, which explains why there are so many features.

Christophe walking at night between Concordia and the summer camp, with nice frozen eyelashes.

Left: Christophe walking at night between Concordia and the summer camp, with nice frozen eyelashes.

Power outage

Feb 22nd — In the morning I get to the lab and when I see the one hour gap in the weather station recording, I know I'm about to step in an ocean of trouble. There's nobody around my lab but the only obvious conclusion is that there's been a one hour power outage during the night. I try to connect remotely to the acquisition computers within the container, to no avail. Since they all restart automatically, the only conclusion is that there's no power. Meaning also that since two in the morning everything is frozen. I soon get confirmation that at 2 in the morning there was a power outage, immediately noticed by Karim who was working (I suspect astronomers arbor a high population of vampires) and quickly woke Christophe, the power plant manager. With a -55°C temperature they couldn't get any snowmachine started so they ran to the summer camp which still produces our electricity. Not finding anything wrong there, they came back and relaunched various blown power breakers.

Emanuele showing the inside of his burnt-out pump.

Right: Emanuele showing the inside of his burnt-out pump.

Why was there an outage in the first place ? After some inquiry, the cause was found in Emanuele's shelter. He has (had!) 3 pumps running at all times, pumping outside air through various filters to catch pollutants. One of his pump and the exhaust tubes leading out are all covered with a thick dark dust. Part of the inner pump, made of graphite, burnt out and since graphite is an excellent conductor it short-circuited everything. Now the power breaker of his container should have gone off and that should have been the end of it. Instead of it about half of the power breakers on base went off, usually at all the wrong places like my own container a kilometer away. When I get there I can sense disaster. I turn the current back on, but leave all the instruments off until the shelter is warmer. I'll be back in the afternoon.

Now why do the wrong breakers go off ? Apparently there's a lot of current going between the neutral and ground lines. I'm supposed to be an electrical engineer, but too much time spent on computers and a bad memory of a university professor getting fried while demonstrating a generator kept me away of big engines and large intensities and voltages. So if anyone has a better opinion, I'll be happy to hear it. There are some equipment which send too much current through the ground, and this causes the breakers to become almost useless. So we spend the day riding around the station and the various remote shelters, turning all the breakers on and off until we can target the various instruments that misbehave. We either retire them or modify them. Guess which is one of those we find ? The APC UPS, yes those same UPSs I've been ranting about before, 2 of which failed in the first few days. It's my last one and they want me to retire it. Fortunately Karim tells me he has another UPS available. I ride back to Concordia and we test the new UPS which, unfortunately, is another of those damn APC but a more powerful and expensive model. We barely connect it, still off, when we see a short circuit on the ground ! Unacceptable, but strangely when it's turned on it behaves okay. So I decide to use it anyway.

Michel checking out the power breakers at my container.

Left: Michel checking out the power breakers at my container.

I ride back to my container with the purpose of restarting the experiments. The PC of the sodar won't start at all. I change its power supply which is fried and it's back online quickly. When I turn on the PC of the radiometer its hard drive makes a loud screeching noise but boots anyway. I restart the instruments but after a while I have some doubts and instead of backing up the data while the system is up and running, I do a reboot to fix some other problem. It's the last time I'll see Win2k on that machine, from now on I get disk errors on boot and can hear the surface layer of the disk being scrapped to the bare metal by the reading head. With data safety in mind I decide to use another PC, the one which power supply I just stole to put on the Sodar. I put the damaged disk as a slave but it hinders the boot process. I boot without it and discover various spyware on the spare system: fdisk, format, re-install Winblows. While I'm doing this the new APC UPS starts beeping as it goes in battery mode. For no reason. Twice. Cutting power to my barely brought back to life equipment. Needless to say I'm furious and swear to all Antarctic deities to give as much bad press as possible to this company while I kick it to oblivion (4 APC, 4 failures). Now everything is connected to the last UPS, a Rielo, but at least it works flawlessly, even if it keeps beeping that it's overloaded.

In the meanwhile I try to read the damaged disk in various machines: my PC and its stack of 400Gb UDMA6 completely locks up when I put this little 4Gb platter of garbage; my IcyBox external enclosure won't even spin it to a start; and various other PCs lock up or don't see it at all. The only way I can get this disk read is in its own computer, an old PII/133.

The atmospheric science lab on the 3rd floor of the quiet building in Concordia. And me at the commands.

Right: The atmospheric science lab on the 3rd floor of the quiet building in Concordia. And me at the commands.

I first boot with the Win98 partition but it asks for the driver of the SOHO100 network card, which I cannot find. Since I must transfer the data files I need some way out of that box. USB keys also want a stupid driver. I try to put an additional slave drive inside but then it won't boot, go figure. Then I try the opposite, boot from another drive with the damaged one as slave. Boot error, and I don't want to spend time to reinstall an OS on this (good) drive. What next ? Knoppix, why didn't I think of you before ! I put this full fledged version of Linux able to boot off a CD in the drive and off we go... to a whole bunch of error messages. I first suspect the bad drive of ruining the controller transmission but then after some doubt I try to boot another computer with this Knoppix CD. Same mess. The CD is damaged so I burn another one. Same mess, so my ISO image is damaged, sob. So I fish out another different version of Knoppix, the so-called STD security version. It boots without a hitch, and is on the network before I can even notice. I mount the damaged disk and start the ssh server. Then it's a simple matter of copying the files with rsync from a Windows PC while the last screams of the dying disk drive Pascal crazy. In the morning of the 2nd day, it's over, the data's safe and double checked against its past backup and all the instruments are back online (except the Lidar which I haven't had time to fix yet). One power outage and 2 days of work to recover from it.

Michel Galland, Michel Munoz and Jeff checking the water network in the back of the Concordia power plant.


Right: Michel Galland, Michel Munoz and Jeff checking the water network in the back of the Concordia power plant.

Feb 23rd — In the afternoon Michel and others of the technical team put the water in Concordia. As they turn the pressure on and open the valves along the pipes, they check all the potential areas for leaks. They already did some testing with high pressure air some time ago, but you never know if the pipes are going to behave differently. We already had some water damage last week, even before the water was on, when the heating went off in the power plant and some tubes which shouldn't have contained water blew up when freezing. It takes them about two hours to complete the operation, so now we have water... but no way to get rid of it: the evacuation is not enabled yet ! Tomorrow there should be a 2m3 tank ready to receive grey water and maybe by saturday the recycling plant will be complete. Then we'll be able to take showers.

Jean-Louis being interviewed by France-Info, with Michel and Claire listening in.

Left: Jean-Louis being interviewed by France-Info, with Michel and Claire listening in.

All week we are being interviewed by the main french news radio France Info, for about 2 minutes in prime time at 12:08 every day. The first one is Karim on monday followed by Claire, me, Jean-Louis and Michel. It's a direct transmission in front of 7 million people. They call me 30 minutes before to prepare the interview (yeah, like a politician I know the questions in advance). Then 5 minutes before they call me and put me on hold while the news go on. I have a good laugh hearing that there is some snow in Paris causing no less than 480km of traffic jam in the capital. Then after 5 minutes talking about that the journalist asks me how much snow we have here and the interview starts. Nothing fancy, just a few basic questions about the weather, my activity, what else I do here (translating between italians and french) and what we hope to do during the winter. I get a bit confused towards the end but all in all I get to talk more than Claire the day before who got cut off after less than a minute because of a loaded news. The funny thing is that the next morning I have quite a bit of 'fan mail' from friends I hadn't heard from in years and who heard me on the radio. Next month there are two more interviews planned, in Italy.

Autumn night as seen from the 3rd floor window of the Concordia labs.

Right: Autumn night as seen from the 3rd floor window of the Concordia labs.

The interview happens at eating time, so I arrive late for dinner and we stay at the table talking for a while. As I walk back to Concordia I notice that the sun is setting, already cut in half by the horizon, and is just perfectly clear. I speed up to Concordia, remembering my last words of the interview: "Here we enjoy the purest horizon in the world". It's the perfect day for the Green Ray. And as I open the window of my 3rd floor laboratory and point the 400mm lens, yes, this exceptional phenomenon is fully visible, one layer of orange sunlight right on the horizon, and another separate layer a fraction of a degree above it, a stupendous bright green. I take a picture but then notice that the parameters of the camera are all wrong. After removing the flash, the spot metering, the manual mode, the underexposure and others I put the camera back to my eye... and the green ray is gone. Raging, I stay at the window another 30 minutes, while Karim is at his and others in their rooms below are watching the show as well. The sun takes forever to set, a thin strip of orange light lingers on the horizon, slowly moving left and several times we see green blotches on it, but nothing as bright as that first flash. There's a spot of light on the ground moving gradually away from us towards the sun and I understand it's the area of maximum intensity of the light reflected by the atmosphere's inversion layer, in other words it's the place where we should be to see the green ray. I take lots of pictures but you'll need to come back next year to see the processed slides... The next day the conditions are similar so I pull out my telescope and ready it by the window, unfortunately there are thin clouds on the horizon and no green ray, even though the sunset is still stunning.

Now the next few days will be well spend finally moving into Concordia.