Text and pictures © 2005-2021 Guillaume Dargaud
Last updated on 2021/02/27
"My love handles hurt: they freeze each time I go outside." — Michel.
Right: Karim and Roberto preparing a probe before a balloon launch.
Left: Karim showing one of his super sensitive thermal sensors, before loading them on the probe.
On friday 11th I try to do a weather balloon launch. There are many problems to overcome. First of all there's not much room where to inflate the balloon. The only place available is the woodwork shop come garage. There are heaps of stuff inside: a caterpillar, two snowmachines, woodworking equipment, garage gear, a large fuel heater and more. In the back of that tent mounted on sleds we put four of our helium crates... and the floor bent down ! They are 700kg each. The floor is made only of wood planks mounted on hollow aluminum beams. We safely decide to leave the other helium tanks outside. The Cat weights a hefty 14 tons, but the front of the tent has stronger steel beams, the problem is that we need to move it further back inside if we want to have room to inflate the balloons. I crawl under the tent to see where we need to reinforce it. Unfortunately only the first two beams are steel, so we won't be able to push the Cat all the way back without incurring the risk of breaking through the floor. With Karim we spend 2 hours trying to get the probe calibrated without success. No launch today.
Right: Preparation of the weather balloon in the mess of the garage.
Karim has established a schedule of balloon launches: twice a week mine, twice a week his. And one more if the weather's good. We don't have enough helium to launch every day. So on monday we launch one of his balloons. His probes are modified standard weather forecast probes, on which he adds ultra-sensitive tungsten temperature sensor to measure the thermal turbulence of the atmosphere. They are extremely fragile so he wait until we have the balloon safely inflated inside the garage before he goes back upstairs to finish the assembly of the probe. I wait 15 minutes holding a 3 meter diameter inflated condom before he comes back down with the probe. It's our first launch so there's a bit of confusion: do we want to tie the 60m rope connecting probe and balloon outside or inside ? Do we launch close or far from each others ? Several people have come down to help us but there's a lot of cursing as we try to place ourselves in a way the will minimize the risk of the probe touching the ground upon launch. It's windy and dark, my eyes are freezing under the mask and I can't even use my hands to remove the ice: one holds the balloon while the other is being cut down through the glove by the thin rope that must be kept tight. Finally I let go of the balloon which doesn't go up as fast as we'd hoped but the probe takes off in one piece. Back inside to monitor the ascent which goes up to 25 kilometers. First success. 2 days later we launch another one on a beautiful windless night. I take out my old Nikon FM for the occasion, leaving it on a tripod outside doing long exposures of Concordia.
Left: Weather balloon launch in the sunset.
During the week I finally receive a confirmation about the lidar so I start working on the container. I want to install a window in the ceiling so I can keep the lidar warm inside. I spend an hour standing on the roof of the container with a 10cm large drill that locks up many times, throwing me up in the air by twisting my arms off my body. For two days afterwards I feel like I've been beaten up in a side street. The ceiling is made of a layer of strong steel, then 15cm of insulating foam and a layer of wood. I also build a small platform on which to place the lidar, which doesn't need its protective box anymore. After the hole is drilled, I use silicon glue to place a window on top, but with the cold it takes several days for the silicon to dry up. In the meanwhile I notice a lot of condensation on the inside of the window. Back to the drawing board: Michel gives me a heated fan which I point at the gap between the lens of the lidar and the ceiling. The next day the ice is gone, the only problem remaining is the sub-optimal laser power. We'll see about that later.
Right: I'm up the mast to clean the ice accumulated on the sensors while an old PC loaded on the snowmachine strives to download the data off the CR23.
In the last month our clothing has evolved from our summer wear. During the summer campaign most people who work outside wear blue-jeans with a set of long underwears, a simple hat and a ski jacket. But now that the outside temperature rarely goes above -50°C anymore nearly everyone has pulled the thick single piece suits from their boxes. Even more obvious almost everyone now wears face masks of different styles, the idea being that we can't leave a square cm of skin exposed... It now takes some experience to recognize people outside. The main problem remains the gloves: we all have enormously thick gloves, but if you go outside it's usually to do some kind of work and you can't do anything with those. So most people still wear their work gloves, freezing fingers here and there. I've decided that from now on, if I need to spend a lot of time outside I'll just cheat and use heat packs... Emanuele who spends a lot of time outside at night sweating digging holes in the snow tries many different ways to avoid foggy glasses: different ways to put them on or underneath his face mask, different makes, he even tries a motorbike helmet and a gas mask !
Left: Pascal checking on the videoconference equipment.
On monday and wednesday we hold a videoconference with Italy. We have two different systems for this: one uses dedicated hardware connected to a video screen and work both ways. It's good quality... when the data line is good, which is often not the case. Depending on the satellite positions there are some hours when the data throughput of the station is a trickle measuring in fractions of bauds. We hold two trials of the systems with less than ideal results: hacked images, 10 second pauses in the sound, interruptions every few minutes. We spend more time saying "Are you there ?", "We can hear you now" or "The system seems to be back online" than actually talking about our work here. Fortunately when the real conference happens at 23:00 the line is good and for about 40 minutes we can see and communicate with the about 150 people gathered in the room on the other side. It's just Roberto, Emanuele and me on the interview, with our PR Karim supervising the operation and Pascal checking the technical aspect. The parents of Emanuele are here, with his mother eager to know if he does the dishes here, unlike at home...
Two days later we try the other system to communicate with a school in Italy: it's a one-way webcam and kids ask us questions through a text interface. It's a lot more awkward than the other system since we seem to be talking alone and it takes a long time to get any feedback on what we are saying. The advantage is that anyone can connect to the server via a web browser and pipe in the communication.
Left: The symbol of the electrical incinolet.
Right: Rappelling down the face of the building to fix an ice-encroached exhaust pipe at the exit of the bathroom incinolet burners. Otherwise, we have to go outdoors to 'unload', not a pleasant thought !
The smoke from the incinolets is becoming worse and worse, smoking up the entire building with a pungent stink. Michel takes some pressure measurements inside the evacuation tube and determines that there must be a block of ice formed inside. When they installed the tubes on the last days of the summer campaign, they did use special insulation around them, but at the junction between the tubes there's unprotected metal exposed to the outside. We don't have the crane anymore so w have to tie up to access the top junction from the roof or from a high ladder at the bottom. In the morning the work is atrociously difficult with a strong wind and a temperature of -60°C, ensconced in 10 cm of clothing and sausaged up in security slings. Every 10 minutes we break down and head back inside for some warmth. The price of taking a dump ! Fortunately in the afternoon the wind has dropped to a perfect zero and it's actually quite enjoyable to do technical rope work in such a setting. Throughout the day I provide technical rope assistance to Jeff while Stéphane and Jean work from the ladder down below. They finish the work the next day by installing an extractor at the base of the tube. During the 3 days without bathroom we have to use the outside construction toilet, which is fortunately heated but it's not particularly convenient at night !
Left: Jean and Claire finishing off my crêpes to their liking.
I'm of service for St Patrick's day. We haven't have time to prepare something special, but since there are several people from french Britain here, and it's as close as it gets to Ireland, it's been decided to make crêpes. Jean Louis is not particularly fond of spending hours cooking them so he goes to sort out his food storage and leaves me in control of the kitchen. I make a batch using his recipe for sweet crêpes, and a double batch using my own. The bretons were supposed to come and direct, but they show up only at 19, exhausted by another long day working outside. They immediately complain that it's unacceptable to have someone from the east of France cook a specialty from their area; but they eat them eagerly nonetheless, mainly complaining that they are not warm enough.
On friday there's the medical visits. Nothing much, just a few basic things, like our weight which will feed the conversations at the next meals, several people having gained up to 6 kg, others having lost even more. The only original thing is a computer program meant to determine our psychosomething by letting us sort out a maze in a limited time. It's not like they are going to evacuate us if we fail the test...
Right: Jean-Louis prisoner into a psychological maze.
As usual, saturday is cleanup day. Now that the outside containers have been more or less sorted out there's work to do inside. In the past week the technical team has removed much of the construction equipment strewn all over the place and either sorted it out or stored it inside containers. Now we can actually see the floor (lacking tiles or any kind of surface material) and the walls (which actual color we can only guess). The floors will be for later so with Emanuele and Roberto we start from the very end of the ground floor corridor, at the door leading outside. That's where the industrial fuel heater was installed during construction and there are fuel fumes all over the corridor. We start with the usual sponge and detergent but all we seem to be doing is spread the slime all over. After a while I start passing a second time with a rag dipped in pure alcohol, which has the same effect (on me) as a decent cocktail and the same effect (on the wall) as a layer of new paint. Eventually we remove the worst spots with even stronger chemicals. The ceiling needs to be cleaned up as well so in an afternoon we barely manage to clean a few meters of corridor. My guess is that it's gonna take all year to clean the base !
On sunday there's not much activity, everyone's resting except for Jean-Louis who's prepared another excellent lunch, with some caviar.
Right: Fire exercise inside Concordia.
Left: Our team of intrepid firemen: Stéphane, Jeff, Christophe and Pascal.
Monday afternoon. Now that there's actually some space in which to move, we do the first fire drill. Our firemen are Jeff, Stéphane, Christophe and Pascal. They dress up in full regalia, with pressurized air tanks, shiny helmets and leather jackets. The exercise today is only to dress up and move around to see how long it takes to get ready. Next time they'll try to use the water pump which is quite delicate at those temperatures.
March 23rd — This week we start to test various emergencies on the station. First the fire team; then the emergency engines; and after that the medical team. This morning the technicians went to the summer camps to test the 3 power generators there, to see how long it would take to start them in case of emergency. The answer is: "a long time" ! None of the generators would start. They are normally kept warm by a heater connected to Concordia's power grid, but the temperature for the two large generators was still too low, the sparklers would turn cold even immediately after being inserted into the engine. As for the small emergency generator meant to be easy to start to warm the others up, its battery was dead. So the plan for the future might be to keep some batteries warm at Concordia and take them to the summer camp if necessary. A second try the next day with different equipment was much quicker at starting them up.
Right: Burnt down air pump.
Among the recurrent problems are Emanuele's pumps. They were working fine during the summer campaign, but apparently they don't like the sub -60°C temperatures very much. He's lost 3 pumps in the last two months, sometimes in spectacular fireworks like today: the blades of the pumps, made of some sort of graphite, broke up and flew inside the engine itself, short-circuiting the coils. The engine started heating up and the thermal fuse didn't work (it's probably too far on the outside of the body of the pump), so the inside of the pump just fused. The plastic labels outside simply melted. After opening it for diagnostics, there's really not much to be done to salvage it. He's now out of spare pumps.
Left: Jean attempting to repair a broken snowmachine on the field.
March 25th — Today I want to try again to go download the CR23 data. I tried a few days ago, preparing a box with a UPS and a laptop inside and riding to the mast with a snowmachine. Once there I couldn't see the screen of the laptop through the box window so I had to pull it out and start the data transfer. After 5 minutes the screen was completely dark and I had to unplug not knowing if the transfer was finished. It wasn't. So today I prepare things differently: the UPS and the laptop inside a large suitcase which I can close down while the transfer is going. But this time none of the snowmachines work, the best I can do is ride 100 meters before it stops. Jean spends some hours trying to get them back to operating mode, but by then I'm doing something else.
Right: Jean-Louis preparing chocolate for Easter.
March 26th — Something interesting has been going on for the last few days: Jean-Louis and Jeff have been carrying loads of chocolate to the kitchen, working on molds in the workshop, melting various types of chocolates in pots and pans worthy of an alchemist's lab and sending good smells all over the station. Easter is coming and on sunday morning we find a large egg in the restaurant. After another excellent lunch the egg is broken... and partly eaten.
Left: Jeff presenting the Easter egg he spent some hours building, only to see it finish into our stomachs.
In the meanwhile it's been getting colder. The temperature varies in steps, for the past week it's been reaching -66°C every night and during the day it doesn't go very much above -60°C. The night is also extending its cold mantle upon us. We hadn't noticed very much till now because the darkness was during sleep time, but now it's beginning to get dark in late afternoon, we eat dinner while the sun has already set and all that's left is a dark purple light to the south. In a few days we'll have to get up in the morning in the dark as well. Jeff and Michel have been busy installing projectors outside the station to lit the stairs, the tanks and the surroundings of the station at night. Since he was working just on the outside of the door Jeff didn't dress too warmly yesterday as he was drilling holes in the wall to pass the power cable, wearing only his jacket and a pile balaclava. After less than 5 minutes he couldn't feel the left side of his face. Nothing serious but at lunch he still couldn't smile properly with a stiff cheek !
Right: Jean, Jeff, Michel and Stéphane playing petanque below -60°C. A traditional sunday afternoon game.
The cold is causing other kinds of trouble. I went with Jean to the CR23 mast where I have an experiment running. In order to download the data I need to go with a laptop, hook it up to the datalogger and wait 10 minutes for the transfer. I'd tried that transfer already a week ago only to see the laptop die with the cold. Now I've changed my setup and put the UPS and the laptop inside a large suitcase which I can close during the transfer. We ride there in two snowmachines in case one breaks down. I start the transfer and in the meanwhile I climb up the mast to clean up the various sensors covered with a thick layer of deposited snow crystals. Jean is taking a few pictures but, more important, every few seconds he boosts the snowmachines a few meters. After we get back to base, I still have to go do some other experiments at my container and he's like: "Yeah, take the old snowmachine, it rides well". I'm careful to leave the engine running while I work inside the container. After half an hour it just won't move: the engine runs fine but the friction is powerless to move the frozen belt. I push, yell and shove to no avail and eventually walk back home. The other snowmachine is dead as well, so after a few hours of trying to get it going Jean gives up and rides the Caterpillar to my container to pick up the still running snowmachine. I guess it's time to mothball them. From now on we walk.
April's Fools — Not too many jokes today (but still a few). I though for a while of PhotoShopping a picture of Concordia all tilted, saying that it's going down through the snow or some such, but even with the date written in big I'm sure I'd would have gotten angry or surprised phone calls from the 'authorities'. Instead my main computer played a joke on me: it locked up during lunch and gave me all kind of disk trouble all afternoon, loosing disks and crashing hard unexpectedly. After several hours to diagnose it, I changed the IDE cable and it solved the problem. I have no idea how a cable can suddenly turn bad, maybe the dryness of the air.
Left: Roberto and Emanuel in winter night wear, going to do one of Emanuele's remote snow samplings. Among the obligatory equipment: radio with spare battery, modified torch with the battery kept warm in the pack, breathing mask, transparent ski mask with a spare for when it's too iced up and all the usual thick winter clothing.
Right: Another (failed) attempt at a breathing mask from Emanuele and Roberto. The tube would ice up quickly.
April 3rd — For the last few days I've felt a bit of boredom for the first time. Things are going well on the station, the rush of getting everything started in the first few months has let its place to more routine work. The technicians don't go outside as often as now most of the heavy or important work is done and they are beginning to work on the details. For instance it's nice now to have roll-holders in the toilets ! On saturday afternoon we were still all busy cleaning up the station, and I finished the workshop and then moved onto cleaning the walls of my lab with acetone to remove the leftover slime from the construction. The others were compacting trash, cleaning the stairs or the ground floor or yet other parts of the station much in need. During the night we broke the record cold again with -68.5°C which kinda cooled down my intentions this morning: I'm supposed to walk to the container to fix an experiment but the temperature is still -66°C, I guess I'll wait till the afternoon to see if it gets any warmer.
Right: Claire up the frost covered mast.
Left: Michel and Claire on the east stairs at the entrance of Concordia.
It didn't get any warmer. Strangely the temperature has kept falling throughout the day. In the afternoon I walk with Michel and Claire to my container where I simply have to replug a loose network cable. I then follow Claire up the mast. There's about 10m/s of wind up there which, combined with the -66°C temperature on the ground, leads to a tremendous windchill. But on the ground itself it's surprisingly nice, without wind and with our own shadows walking way ahead of us, stretched by the low sun. Just before dinner I look at the thermometer and it has a certain psychological effect on me: -70.1°C. Here we are. It's like reaching the crux after 10 pitches of climbing: that's what you came for and you wouldn't turn back for anything, yet knowing full well that the hard part is now upon you. The hard cold part. It's a good 7°C cooler than yesterday at the same hour, so the night will be cold indeed.
Left: An animated walk around Concordia, taken from a 160m distance, one image for each of the 18 side panels.
Instead of being cold the night is restless. We have 4 main satellite antennas: two on the roof under radomes and two inside a storage room on the 3rd floor, just above my bedroom. The Inmarsat antennas have positioning motors that are quite noisy but they normally adjust the alignment of the antennas by no more than a few degrees to follow the geostationary satellites, low on the horizon. The antennas work indoors because the walls are made of some fiber material, but the signal is still weaker. Every once in a while the antenna looses the satellite and starts spinning around until it finds it again, which might not happen if the signal to noise ratio is too weak. In other words every once in a while I have a buzzing antenna right above my bed, like tonight when it keeps me awake all night. Only in the morning I learn it's not the indoor antenna but the outdoor one that wreaked havoc and kept everybody awake. The building structure is made of thick metal beams and the sound transmit too well vertically between the floors. Jean-Louis sleeps under my lab and I often keep wake him up when I move around the lab late at night. In this case the antenna froze and its engines started spinning at random. There's a heater inside the radome but apparently it wasn't enough as the temperature inside dropped to an unhealthy -30°C. In the morning Stéphane, Michel and Pascal went up on the roof and added a tube blowing hot air from inside the building. A bit of a complicated system but the antenna was back online before lunchtime.
Right: Example of photography difficulty in the cold: your breathing forms a cloud of frost thicker than the inside of a smoker's lung, and if you happen to use a flash it's illuminated like a wall of solid ice ! In the back you can barely recognize Karim holding the weather balloon and the windows of Concordia.
April 4th — Balloon launch tonight, one of Karim's. He always want to launch late in the evening so we go out around 21:00 and do the usual: we both go down to inflate the balloon inside the garage, then he goes back to his lab to finish the preparation of the probe (inserting the very fragile tungsten sensors) while I tie up the balloon, shut down and remove the helium tubing. Then he sends someone down with the probe to stand outside while he verifies the radio data feed for a few minutes. Then he comes down, we tie the long 60m line to the balloon, walk outside with the balloon, tie the other end to the probe and start releasing the balloon slowly. Today as soon as the balloon is 5 meters up in the air it starts flying 90 degrees from the direction of the wind on the ground, right in the direction of Concordia. I quickly walk along the summer camp power line to get away from the station, circling around Karim and Michel to keep a tension on the rope. After the release the balloon goes even farther to the west than we expected and we see the probe head right for Concordia, staying very close to the ground. It finally passes 5 meters to the right of the noisy building, right inside the smoke of the power generator !
Each time we launch one of Karim's balloon I put my old manual camera outside in pause mode to do long exposure photography of the night sky. Tonight we have all the lights out on the stairs of Concordia and it looks really cool but at the same time it hinders the view of the stars. After the launch when I go retrieve my tripod I look at the little blinking light of Emanuele and Roberto in the distance doing snow sampling south of here. And just above them is a nice looking aurora ! I call back Karim and Michel who already have the door open to go back to the warmth of the station and with a call on the radio we see several heads pop out of the windows of the 3rd floor buildings. The aurora is not very bright but it has green and purple colors. I take some pictures with my old Nikon and then try with the digital camera but the results suck big time.
Left: The first barely visible aurora I saw during this winterover, with a lot of post-processing to go over the limits of the cheesy digital camera.
We have a potential problem with the water. Now that we have accumulated enough storage water, we are now using those tanks instead of the melter. They are large blue containers with a tank inside and pumps and tubing to bring water multiple ways: to Concordia, from the melter or between the tanks themselves. It's a fairly complicated setup that took several weeks to install at the end of the summer campaign and the beginning of the winterover. It's particularly complex since all the tubing is enclosed in wooden casings and insulation. The tanks were built 10 years ago in Australia and progressively brought to Dome C on the Traverses, which might be the root of the problem: a few days ago Emanuele was the first one to notice that the water stank. So is it just that the tanks are new and a little rusty or dusty, or is it something as serious as dead animals hidden inside ? We have no way to know as they are sealed and unreachable to a casual observer. In the meanwhile we can drink water direct from the melter or... wine. Strangely the water quality analysis doesn't show anything, but it's meant to analyze water from the recycling system, so there are many things it doesn't test. After a few days the taste goes away, so it was probably only some dirt in the tubings. Our water consumption is about 1m3 per day, i.e. 80 liters per person per day, counting drinking water, showers, dishwasher, kitchen... From this water, 70% is then recycled into the system, the rest ('mud') being discarded outside in large cardboard boxes. For the first two weeks of april the water production (melter + recycler) is spot on 15m3. Another problem with the water is that sometimes there are leaks in the hundreds of tubes of the recycling system. Three times already the room has been found flooded in the morning so now Michel and Claire get up at 4 in the morning to come down for a look. Fortunately the ground is close to being waterproof so the leaks to the workshop downstairs have been limited.
In the afternoon we finally start the medical 'lessons'. Roberto wants everybody to come to the first two lessons and then he will choose a team of helpers for when a medical emergency arises. The first lesson is theoretical, just to remind us of 'good practice' and a few obvious (and less obvious) concepts. The second session is a bit more fun: CPR, stretcher transport of 'volunteers' and more practical activity.
Left: Roberto showing slides of medical 'lessons'.
Right: Stéphane and Jeff to the rescue of Michel under the supervision of Roberto.
Right: Large cotton snowflake.
April 6th — In the afternoon I do a triangular walk from Concordia to my experimental container to the weather station. The radiometer PC is BSOD in the container, probably due to the cold inside. I raise the power by 500W and do a disk check before I can relaunch the acquisition system. Then after a pleasant walk I reach and climb the weather station to clean up the ice accumulated on the anemometer. In the last few days the wind has been pretty low and it's impressive how much solid condensation there's been on some materials. Some ropes of metal surfaces are covered by a good 5cm thick layer of very fluffy snow. Fluffy is not the right term as it looks more like cotton and dissolves under the touch. There are balls of the stuff all along the path. They roll on the ground under the smallest wind like a tumbleweed. I would later discover that those things were only discovered 10 years previously by our japanese colleagues of Dome F and named Yukimarimo. They form thanks to extremely low wind, low temperature and static electricity. My colleague and successor Igor published a glaciology paper about them some years later, available here: Yukimarimo at Dome C, Antarctica.
On the way back I notice something burning in my pocket: the two AA batteries inside my multimeter are red-hot. It's the 2nd time I've had this happen with alkaline batteries. I guess they must somehow short-circuit themselves with the cold. We get all kind of nasty surprises like that now that the temperature is reaching below -70°C: some plastics crack up, some metals become brittle, flexible things are no longer flexible, silicone electrical cables just snap if you try to move them and they have cross current due to changes in the dielectric properties of the insulation, etc...
Left: Claire walking around the power plant covered in fuel, carrying fuel lines.
Right: Roberto walking behind the fuel containers. That's our entire stock of fuel for the winter.
April 7th — The technical team is getting nervous. Once a month they need to transfer fuel from one of the external tanks to the tank just next to the generators. Only this time it didn't work. They first think that the fuel has turned sluggish from the cold and they take samples from the tanks to test its fluidity which appears to be okay. After testing various things, they finally narrow it down to the pump which seems to have lost all its sucking power. In the afternoon after coming back from my container I enter from the power plant door which is the nearest entrance and find them all stinking fuel after having battled all day with those pipes and pumps. Finally after changing the pump they manage to transfer the fuel. Just in time too, we had only 2 days of fuel left in the main tank ! Our fuel consumption is currently 500 liters per day, for a production of about 80kW. We have 3 main power generators located in the power plant, a building made of welded containers at the foot of Concordia. Those generators can go up to 110kW, so they are pretty close to their max capacity, but it was decided that way in order to save fuel. There's also a backup generator inside the 'noisy' building of Concordia and we can also rely on the generators left at the summer camp in case of emergency. Of the 3 main generators there's always one operating, one on standby and one in maintenance. We do not need to stand watch over them.
Left: Claire waiting with the weather probe at the base of the steps while Karim is verifying the communication.
Right: Inflating a second weather balloon after the 1st one was punctured.
Also not going well tonight: the balloon launch. We do the usual inflation in the garage, then go back inside to prepare the probe with which Michel walks out. When Karim joins us and I walk outside with the balloon I can feel it flapping in the low wind, a feeling I haven't had before. We walk quite far from the station before I call Karim to check on the now decidedly deflated balloon. There's a 2cm hole on the side. We leave Michel to stand watch on the probe while we run to fetch another balloon and inflate it. I tie up the old one, we may still use it for an helium party ! When we come back to the field where Michel is waiting there's a violent ground noise over hundreds of meters: the snow shifting down, like in avalanches. I'm surprised and think it may come from some kind of thermal contraction of the ground with the colder days. Michel is out watching the starts in the very low wind and we restart the launch procedure, with success this time. It is the first truly dark night I see; before there was always some kind of glimmer on the horizon but now the Milky Way and the Magellan clouds really stand out.
April 8th — Michel wants to change the way the external science containers are wired inside Concordia. For this he needs to cut power for a short while so in early afternoon Karim, Emanuele, Pascal and I dress up and head for our respective containers to watch over the procedure. There, having no faith into the duration of my UPSes, I switch off almost everything for the expected 15 minutes blackout. And go clean the snow out of the Sodar antenna outside. It's -66°C but the wind is non-existent and I decide to climb the tower to enjoy the view. The tower is covered with snow and fairly slippery but the top is worth it. It's unusual but there's no wind whatsoever on top and the view gives a good idea of infinity. If I look south, west or north, all I see is an emptiness of sastrugi forming wave after wave of snow till the horizon. After a while getting the view in full, I climb back down to restart my various experiments and head back to base for the second medical training session.
Right: Concordia and the atmospheric science shelter seen from the summit of the American mast. Notice the trail of smoke running north very close to the ground. The shadow of the tower is over the limit of the clean area and points towards my CR23 mast (little green pixel).
April 12 — With Roberto we try to process an X-ray. The X-ray has actually been taken quite some time ago but we had no data as to the developing time. Now that he's received this information we prepare the products (developer, fixer and wash) and process the film. It's all white except at the corner where some light came through the corners of the holding box. We do another exposure with a longer time and this time there's some barely visible outline. Finally we do what is usual in traditional B&W photography labs, a test strip with various exposures. The X-ray machine we use is an old portable model that has been sitting at Dome C and previously at BTN for 20 years and has never been used previously, so we can't be sure if the exposure time written on it is very relevant. At least it seems to still be working.
Jean-Louis finally finds a way to make us eat the tons of corn flakes accumulated in the corner of the storage room: he dips them in chocolate and makes a nice looking 'sand rose' with them. In the evening the temperature drops yet again, reaching -73.4°C (that would be -100°F for you americans). I thought it was a wee bit cold when we launched the balloon in the evening.
Right: Almost everyone facing the camera at the videoconference with Roberto's hospital.
April 13 — Roberto had been planning this for a while and here it comes: a videoconference with his hospital. There are more than a hundred hospital personnel and sick kids in attendance, and part of his family in the front row. With some persuasion he managed to get almost everyone on our side to attend the conference which lasts a good 75 minutes, to the interest of everyone on the other side, including the italian TV and a politician. The quality of the communication is quite good and Roberto's wife provides simultaneous translations for when the french members of the expedition take the mike.
Left: The other side of the videoconference: the conference room of the CNR in Rome, with the vice-minister of research in attendance.
I must say that communications are a lot better than during my first winterover. At the time we were allowed one 70 words message a week. Period. You can't say much with that. Even worse, the little that you say always turns out to be the same, week after week: "Everything going well. Went out to see the penguins. Froze a few fingers. Haven't turned crazy yet. Say hello to the family. Eating well. Spent a few hours digging the snow out of the entrance of the lab. Fixed a few experiments. Broke some others. Eating chocolate. Saw aurora. Wish you were here. Took a shower this week. Still 196 days. Going back to see the penguins now. Beer later. Bye". 70 words. Try to express much more than this ! Now it's better and we can actually be part of things happening back home and make people be part of what we are living. During the summer campaign we were limited to 20Kb of email per day, but now that cap has vanished down in some forgotten config file and we can send and receive 1.5Mb emails. The catch is that with only 2 or 3 communications per day it takes a good 24 hours between a question and its answer.
Right: Michel and Jeff preparing their emails in the computer room.
I've been asked several times what it feels like to be exposed to temperatures of -80°C. Well, first we haven't quite reached that yet, the coldest we've had so far is -76°C, but we are getting there. The short answer is that we are never exposed to -80°C, we wear so much clothing that there's hardly ever any exposed skin, so all you feel is the cold seeping slowly through your clothing, and when it feels like you are immersed in cold, it's time to go back inside. The soles of the boots become hard as wood, clothing start doing strange ripping noises, rubber (of goggles for instance) becomes stiff (*). The problem is when you must remove your gloves to do something precise (like those stupid digital cameras with buttons so small you need a fingernail to operate them); your fingers can turn blue in less than 10 seconds, and good luck warming them up afterwards ! Everybody has had at one point or another some burn marks on the face where the face mask happened to move and leave a bit of skin exposed. Also eyeglasses are a pain: the metal bar in the middle will leave a nice burn mark on the bridge of the nose. An analogy I've used is the following: you know the difference between +40°C and 0°C ? In one case you are in bathing suit on the beach, in the other you feel miserable after 15 minutes of waiting for your bus wearing only Jeans and a jacket. It is the same difference between 0°C and -40°C. And yet again the same difference between -40°C and -80°C. I'll let you draw the conclusions.
(*): I recently learned that the glass transition of rubber is -70⁰C, so it's no surprise that some people broke their boots walking down the stairs too fast; rubber indeed turns to glass ! I wonder if you could stab someone with a shard of rubber... ;-P Well, Jules Vernes made bullets out of frozen mercury in one of his north pole novel, so why not.
Left: Pascal testing the fire alarms.
Right: Jeff crawling in the double ceilings to install fluorescent lights.
To save on electricity production Jean and Jeff have spent the last few days changing the heating in the garage. The garage is where we keep the Caterpillar used to fill the melter once every 3 days, there's also an emergency snowmachine and woodworking equipment. It's also from there that we launch our balloons. We'd like to keep a steady temperature of about -20°C. There was a fuel stove during the summer campaign but its space was needed for the vehicles and it was replaced by a combination of power hungry electric heating and something called a S+, like a big fuel-powered blowdryer. The problem is that it also uses lots of fuel and smokes up the place. So they've been extending the method we already use to heat Concordia: cogeneration.
80% of the heat necessary for Concordia is recovered from the watercooling of the power generator, and 20% from the cooling of the exhaust. It's efficient but you need to have a network of water pipes all over. There's a cycle of water between the power generators and the heaters in the small room by the entrance. The heaters maintain the temperature at 76°C, but most of the time they don't actually need to do anything as the generators are hot enough. The heaters feed this heat into a primary loop maintained around 70°C which runs from the power plant building to the two substations found in each of the Concordia buildings. There each building has a secondary loop, maintained at around 50°C which goes into the radiators found in every room. The temperature of every loop is adjusted depending on the outside temperature. Michel and the Vosgien (a local celebrity and viol player) designed the heating system.
As for the garage, carrying water outside when it's -80° is not easy, even if it's supposed to be hot water. So Jeff and Jean drilled some holes below the 1st floor of Concordia, laid some pipes to the garage next door and insulated them. The pipes will go to a set of heaters inside. Still about the heating of Concordia there's something fishy going on: the heaters have to be purged of building air very often. The fluid going through them is mostly glycol but we suspect some kind of electrolysis to be going on. A strong difference of potential has been found between some of the stoves and it could explain the presence of hydrogen inside the top floor stoves.
Other technical work includes the completion of the fire alarms installation by Pascal. No more crawling through the double ceilings which he knows better than the rest of the station. He finishes with an afternoon of testing, going from room to room with what looks like a bathroom drainer, triggering one alarm after the other in a noisy concert of beeps.
Above: Panorama of Concordia taken from the top of a nearby container on April 15th.
April 16 — 6 months. For some of us it's been already 6 months since departure: Michel, Karim, Jean-Louis, Stéphane and a few others left Europe on October 16th and they are not even halfway through. It's saturday evening so there's a little celebration, but nothing out of the ordinary.
Right: Emanuele taking a snow sample at night, a km away from the station.
April 17 — After dinner I go with Emanuele on his sampling tour. Twice a day he needs to go out to take snow samples for analysis of chemical properties. The idea is to have one sample at the warmest time of day and one at the coldest. He has two sampling sites, one a km south of the station, more or less to the left of the science corridor where there's his shelter, my weather station and the seismology shelter. The other sampling location is between his shelter and the ConcordiAstro platform. So we dress warmly and head out. Since he's the one who spends most time outside he's designed several custom modifications to the standard equipment. The lamp has the batteries in the pack (two in parallel), he wears a tube under his balaclava through which to blow the expired air in order to avoid accumulation of ice on the fabric and the goggles. After a short while he turns off the lamp and we walk towards the darkness without seeing where we put our feet, barely able to guess the presence of the power line to the right. Mars is very low on the horizon, a bright red spot guiding us away from the station. After a good 20 minutes we reach his sampling site, he pulls some small plastic vials and fills them with the freshly deposited snow of the day, less than a mm on the ground. We walk back to his shelter to warm up for a minute, then head off to the second sampling site where he repeats the maneuver. After that it's back to Concordia, brightly illuminated and hard to miss, a cruise ship in the middle of an ocean of ice.
Left: Preparing a victim for transportation.
Right: Preparing a victim for transportation
April 18 — After lunch M. went west of the station, tripped over one of the wires of the Aastino shelter, fell on the slope behind and couldn't get up. He called on the radio while everybody was inside the station finishing the digestion. A general emergency is triggered and we gather in front of the hospital in the quiet building. There Roberto is already giving orders. He dispatches the first two persons dressed in winter gear, Claire and Pascal, to go check on the accident. In the meanwhile he prepares the emergency equipment and the various accessories of the sled. Pascal reports on the radio that it appears to be a broken leg. As soon as all is ready we exit the station in the direction of the 'victim'. We find him laying conscious on the slope behind the container and start unpacking the equipment. In a few minutes he's raised with an extrication board, and put on a sled, wrapped in a blanket, tied down and then pulled on the 200m distance to the entrance of Concordia. With the main rope removed he's then carried up the stairs between the two main buildings. 25 minutes after the initial call the victim is safely inside, at the entrance of the emergency room. Since this was all an exercise we comment on the success of the operation. Well, only 5 people initially knew that this was an exercise until they reached the victim who was laughing hard. Things went pretty smoothly but some equipment simply broke with the cold, like the cervical collar.
Right: Back inside, in front of the emergency room.
Left: Michel and Claire preparing the fire equipment.
April 22 — Another fire exercise today. This time not just for the 4 'pro' firemen but for the people behind who have to bring them the water lines. Using water in Antarctica is pretty difficult so in case of fire we hope to rely mostly on the fire extinguishers. We have about 3 times more extinguishers than in the average building. They are easier and faster to operate and there are at least 3 on every floor, of different types, plus a large stash on the 1st floor. In DdU they've had several fires over the years (not counting the fire which destroyed the original station in 1952), usually in summer during construction works, and every time they managed to put the fire down without water. So if we have to put water to use it will mean that the situation will be pretty desperate. Here's the plan: the person who notices the fire gives the alert and tries to tackle it with extinguishers at hand while the 4 'pro' firemen go get dressed. In the meanwhile Michel goes to the power plant to cut power to the areas of fire. Jean and Karim go prepare the water pump while Jean-Louis, Emanuele and me get the hoses unrolled through the corridors. We connect the hoses and they start the water pump which gets water from the nearest container; hopefully without the water freezing inside the beginning of the hose. And then spraying starts.
Back to the fire drill. We just learn where to find the equipment: rolls of hose, wrenches and connectors. We setup the hoses and check the distances to reach the farthest point from the station and discuss our options on how to set it up quickest in the stairs. Since we are only 13, everybody has a role in case of fire, besides those I've already mentioned, Michel supervises the operations by radio from the power plant building and Roberto calls everyone regularly from his hospital position to keep tabs on people. Everyone has to have a radio and hopefully there won't be too much of a communication confusion. For the coming week we have training sessions every afternoon: fire drills, lessons on extinguisher use, medical training, etc...
Right: Emanuele unrolling the hose.
Left: Michel and Claire reviewing the drill at the end of the hoses.
Left: Jeff reaching the 3rd floor of the noisy tower and ready to spray during the fire drill.
Right: Steph 'Bond' armed with the hose.
Right: Karim taking a break while carrying the contingency equipment to the container.
Left: Michel assembling the dentistry chair.
April 27th — The thing with a winterover is that we are truly on our own. Even in case of dire needs we'll have to wait till november before any kind of rescue can arrive. So all kinds of contingency plans are usually prepared. I've already written about the power generators of the summer camp kept on standby to be able to restart in as little as a few hours. Another recent idea is to have emergency clothing ready inside a container close to the station in case there's a fire in Concordia and we need to evacuate in a hurry. I can just imagine rushing in the middle of a -80°C night, stark naked outside, to go dress inside a container of frozen clothing !
Right: Roberto sorting tools in the surgery room.
Left: The Concordia surgery team: Karim, Michel, Claire, Jean-Louis, Michel all under the direction of Roberto.
Michel has begun working on the dentist chair which arrived in small containers, one of which at least got lost (the one containing the screws, attachments and maybe the user's manual). So he's spending several days to figure out how to assemble the thing which is a lot more complicated than I would have thought. Since the chair also spent a bunch of winters stored in containers, we hope it'll still work... or that we won't need it !
Left: First Dome C surgery.
In the afternoon we have the first meeting of the surgery team. We've already had two emergency and CPR lessons, destined to everyone on base, but now we get into more details. Roberto has chosen his surgery team, everyone in double in case the victim is of the team (except himself !). Two surgery helpers: Michel M. and Jean-Louis who's already performed 9 surgeries (and who knows how to use a knife pretty well in his kitchen); two nurses: Karim and Michel G.; and two anesthetists: Claire and myself. For almost 3 hours he takes us around the various steps necessary in a surgical procedure, from getting the victim inside the surgery room, preparing the adequate equipment, dressing up, anesthetics, instruments and more. Since the hospital is brand new and has been installed only after we moved inside Concordia, there are some things missing. For instance the absence of NO2 precludes performing a complete general anesthesia, we'll have to make do with only hypnotic and analgesic, no muscle relaxant. I have some studying to do...
The next day I'm actually the first one to try out the surgery... as a victim ! I just walk in there to ask for something to put on nascent warts, and Roberto takes this as an opportunity to try out his electric lancet and other tools on my defenseless finger ! Well, 10 minutes later I'm already outta there so it's not such a big deal.
Next: into the darkness...