Tuesday, 25 November 2014

Journey to Princess Elisabeth Station and first works

Our flight to Antarctica took place indeed in the night of 18 to 19 November. At 23h30 Cape Town time the usual Ilyushin took off for the 5h45 flight to Antarctica. The flight is more or less straight southwards, 4200 km, to the Novolazarevskaya Air base. The flight is organized by ALCI (Antarctic Logistics Centre International), an organization supported by the nations operating stations in and around East Antarctica and especially in the Dronning Maud Land area. From Novo it would still be around 2000 km to South Pole. 

Quentin and I and the Ilyushin at unload at Novo and our pile of cargo

In order to get to the individual stations, there are two small Basler propeller aircrafts. They can carry around 2.5 tons of passenger/cargo combined. As we were 13 persons and had quite a lot of cargo, we had to split into two groups. The lucky ones (including me and Quentin) had a flight the same day afternoon. Nevertheless, we had to wait 9 hours at Novo because the Basler aircrafts were first flying to other stations. Which stations are served first or later and when exactly depends mainly on weather (at Novo and at the respective station), distance, and the obligatory resting times for the pilots. In the beginning of the austral summer season, the weather is relatively unstable, i.e. fair and bad weather for flying changes often and flight plans change by hour. At Novo there is not much to do. You are assigned to containers which are nicely furnished with beds, heating and (European norm) power plugs for the laptops, tablets, smartphones and other gadgets people have nowadays always with them. There is also a large special container for taking the meals or to have a hot coffee with biscuits. Most of us slept most of the time. 

The Basler aircraft at Utsteinen air strip
Before departure, we had to load the nearly two tons of cargo into the Basler and off we went. It is a 1h45 flight from Novo to Princess Elisabeth Station, for the 450 km distance. From the plane the vast stretches of white, sometimes the cracks of the glaciers and sometimes some rocks sticking out can be admired. The specific shape of the mountains around Princess Elisabeth made it easy to recognize that we were approaching our final destination. At 17h30 local time, i.e., CET time as in Belgium, the Basler landed at Utsteinen air strip. Quick welcome, unloading, transfer to the station (still 2 km away) and there we are. The Basler returned immediately – they had another flight to do that day from Novo. On that Wednesday we had the introduction to the station and Quentin and I had time for a first look on the instruments which have been at the station during the unmanned period. 

The crevasse where we made the usual training.Beautiful.
The next day, we made a first planning of the work we will carry out the coming almost four weeks. Around noon, the group left behind at Novo arrived. After lunch, our group of 13 was summoned for the usual field training. As weather was perfect – almost no wind, blue clear sky, ‘only’ around -20°C, crevasse training was programmed. This means that everybody of us is going down –secured with a rope- in a crevasse and the others are trained in the different methods to get somebody out of a crevasse. There is no large crevasse in the near vicinity of the station and therefore it is a 12 km drive on skidoos (snow mobiles) to a ‘suitable’ one. Dealing with ropes, knots, carabiners, taking snow mobiles to help is on the menu. It was good to do a bit hand work at these cold temperatures. On Friday morning we had another training, now on the snow mobiles. After an introduction on the mechanics (and in particular what the scientists as suspected non-adepts of mechanics should better avoid to do), we drove out for some rides on slopes. Up and down, ever more steep. Have confidence in your skidoo and behave smoothly on your skidoo, that’s the message. 

 Skidoo training and a balloon launch

In the afternoon we had finally time to look more in detail to our instruments. We restarted some of them, checked others, and also made a radiosonde balloon launch. These balloon launches serve to know the vertical distribution of temperature, humidity, pressure, wind and wind direction, what is very useful for interpretation of the meteorological dynamic conditions. Saturday, Sunday and today, Quentin and I were busy with starting up instruments, testing them, and doing more balloon launches. I will write next time more on the individual instruments, not all of them making us completely happy. However, we are lucky with the weather. No storm in sight, what means that we can go on undisturbed with our works outside and on the station’s roof.

Monday, 17 November 2014

GO for another season at Princess Elisabeth station

Cape Town - View to Robben Island
View on Camps Bay Beach near Cape Town
Since one week Princess Elisabeth station is opened for this season’s Belgian Antarctic Research expedition. The first team arrived on Sunday, 9 November at Utsteinen and has been and is working on bringing the station back to full operational status . The second team with 9 scientists, the doctor, a field guide, a journalist and a teacher (whose class won the IPF Polar Quest competition) is already in Cape Town, waiting for the flight into Antarctica. Most probably that flight will happen tomorrow night, with take-off on 18 November 23:15 local time. If everything goes well, everybody of us will be at the station already on Wednesday. Otherwise, some of us have to stay one night at the Russian Air base at Novolazarevskaya. 
From the nine scientists 5 are from the ICECON project, one is the InBev-Baillet Latour Fund winner (BENEMELT project), one is working on the SMEAIS project, and two are for the atmospheric research programme of the Royal Meteorological Institute – Quentin Laffineur and I. The first thing we will have to do upon arrival at the station is to check the status of the five instruments which were staying there over the austral winter months. They have been operational until mid-May and were literally in the freezer afterwards because of a general power outage of the station. We will check if they have encountered any damage, do necessary tests for proper operation and put them back into operation if these tests are positive. In the air cargo travelling with us, there are four more instruments which will be re-installed by Quentin and me. One is the good old sunphotometer, which is returning for its seventh consecutive measurement season (it travels always back and forth because of its necessary yearly calibration in Europe). The second instrument is the Brewer ozone spectrophotometer which had to be brought back last season because of necessary repairs concerning its power module and for a calibration. The nephelometer had also to be repaired and will hopefully run again continuously, including the austral winter months. And finally, as last season, we will have a cloud condensation nuclei counter of the TROPOS institute in Leipzig, Germany. 
The first two mentioned instruments will be installed on the station’s roof, and the latter two in the southern scientific shelter. For a description of all our instruments, have a look at the link to the right (BELATMOS project description). In addition, we will check all instruments of the HYDRANT project, dig one or two snow profiles as usual, and we will install a new radiosonde ground station for launching radiosondes. The radiosonde programme is a collaboration of RMI with the International Polar Foundation and the institute for ‘Wald, Schnee und Landschaft’ of the ETH Z├╝rich, Switzerland. We will surely write more on this later. Altogether, this makes up for a nicely filled programme for the around 30 days of our stay at Princess Elisabeth station and I am happy that Quentin of our Ozone-UV-Aerosol group of RMI accompanies me this season.

Thursday, 27 February 2014

Princess Elisabeth Antarctica station now in winter mode

the final place taking off from Utsteinen - copyright International Polar Foundation
On Monday, 24 February around noon, all station team members left Utsteinen and flew out to Novo (see image of the station webcam above; www.antarcticstation.org). For the coming nearly 9 months, nobody will be at the station. Everything has been arranged in order to guarantee the functioning of the station and that the scientific instruments can be remotely controlled. Four aerosol instruments remain active in the southern shelter: the TEOM-FDMS, the aethalometer, the laser aerosol spectrometer (LAS; number size distribution of particles) and the condensation particle counter (CPC; aerosol total number). The sunphotometer (total atmospheric aerosol load) was uninstalled by Karel and it is now on its way back to us. It has to be calibrated each year by the reference centre of the network it belongs to (AERONET; aeronet.gsfc.nasa.gov) and because during winter the sun is missing for its direct sun measurements. In addition, the sensors for total solar irradiation and UV-A and UV-B radiation remain active (follow in near-real time the evolution of the UV index ). Also, the cloud condensation nucleus counter is on its way back to the Institute for tropospheric research in Leipzig, Germany. We have now two months of simultaneous data on aerosol number, size distribution and the aerosol’s capability to form cloud droplets. The analysis will give us more insight into the type of the aerosol, if there are dependencies of the cloud formation properties on meteorology or on air mass origin. To operate aerosol instruments without being able to do any physical maintenance during 8 to 9 months is a challenge. Luckily, the aerosol shelter is well-insulated and heated, thus the harsh conditions during winter should not be a problem. However, during periods of heavy storms with very strong snow drift, the instruments could get problems of, e.g., too many snow crystals sucked in via their air sample inlets. Therefore, two additional supervision tools were installed in the shelter: (i) a webcam (an example image above), to be able to see, e.g., if the instruments are still on, if any of the error-message LEDs of the instruments are lit, or if there is any snow intrusion; (ii) a remotely controllable power switch, via which we can switch off and on each instrument individually. This last one will be useful when, e.g., the data connection between desktop and CPC hung up itself, or when the automatic tape advance mechanism of the aethalometer is blocked for any reason. So, everything is setup for a successful winter measurement period and currently working fine. Credits for this go to Karel Moerman, who supervised the instruments during the last two months, to Erik Verhagen who helped me a lot during my stay at the station, and also to Alain Hubert and the whole station team for the support and the help in order to keep the instruments running.

Friday, 17 January 2014

Return Saga

Almost three weeks of 2014 have passed, Christmas/New Year holidays are over, and the office work has started again. Finally, we flew out from Princess Elisabeth station around noon on 18 December. Two days earlier than planned. Bad weather has been announced from the 19/20 December onwards. Therefore, the Ilyushin took off from Cape Town already on 17 December in the evening. The new Belgian team for Princess Elisabeth station arrived just in time in Cape Town to catch this flight. Lucky for us, because otherwise we would have stayed longer at the station, as there was no ‘empty’ feeder flight foreseen in the budget from Novo to Utsteinen, just to pick us up. A next Ilyushin flight would have been surely after Christmas. All of us of our ‘outgoing’ group were happy to avoid the perspective of a delay of a week or more to return to Belgium. In the end, it was the fastest journey out of Antarctica I ever had: we flew out around noon, arrived 1 ½ hour later at Novo where we went immediately into the waiting Ilyushin, and one hour later the cargo machine took off. And in the late evening of 18 December we were sitting in Cape Town on the hotel terraces, enjoying a meal and warm temperatures. The earlier departure meant however that I could not finalise all points of my agenda, like installing in the aerosol shelter a webcam and a multiple plug for remote power control. The Brewer ozone spectrophotometer had to be packed safely in a cargo box for its way back to Europe. I did some last tests/heart operations on the nephelometer, but it was not possible to repair it and so I packed it also in its box for return. Now it is already at the company for repair.
So, until our flight to London/Brussels on 22 December in the evening, we had four days in Cape Town. Enough time to relax, to de-compress, to buy some souvenirs and to enjoy the good food in Cape Town and the nice sunny weather. I also did a day trip safari (during the former stays in Cape Town I always thought that once I had to do this). There are several parks and tour operators you can choose from. We went to a private game reserve which is around 2 ½ hour drive by minibus to the East of Cape Town. Private game reserve means, it is a very vast enclosed area, in an impressive landscape, where the animals are supervised and protected (against poaching), and where small scale tourism takes place (you can also stay overnight in comfortable lodges or chalets, however there is not much else than safari to do in this remote region). It also means that you are more or less sure to see the animals, compared to other parks which are open wild life. Our open-jeep safari took around 2 ½ hours and we saw them all – buffaloes, zebras, rhinos, eland antelopes, hippos, giraffes, elephants, and lions. The lions live in a separate compartment of the reserve where they may hunt the game living there. From time to time they get some additional food. And as they only hunt one/two times per week – they are most of the time lying lazily around (and are not interested in tourist meat). The reserve hosts also some white rhinos. You have to know that South Africa is the home place of almost the whole population of the white rhino and poaching with the only aim to cut their horns is a real threat. In 2013 alone, almost 1000 rhinos were killed by poachers (see www.savetherhino.org).
As said, now it is office work again in greyish and wet Brussels, and I am remotely controlling the instruments in Antarctica. At the station, it is Karel Moerman who supervises the instruments and who is doing all necessary maintenance tasks which cannot be done remotely. He is doing this extremely well and I can sleep quietly, knowing that the instruments are in good hands.