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 Zürich, 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; 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; 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
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.

Sunday, 15 December 2013

Instruments up, Instruments down

The last week was characterised by severe instrument interventions. Monday and Tuesday kept us busy with the extension of the mast of the automatic weather station. Monday I dug out an almost 2m deep hole around the mast. This depth was necessary to reach the top of the battery container. The batteries were pulled out and put into a new container which finally was placed on top of the old one. These batteries kept the weather station running now since almost five years, and they are still in good shape. It was a funny feeling being down in this hole and even when standing upright I could not look out. It was also a very warm, calm day and during digging, the warm down jacket was not necessary. Around noon, the air temperature in 2m height was even +3°C !  However, down there in the hole it was freezy. The aluminium mast had still the temperature of the surrounding snow/ice – around -20°C. My sweaty leather working gloves would freeze stuck immediately when touching the mast. The following day two colleagues –Francois (on the image in the hole) and Craig- helped me to extend the mast. First, disconnecting he upper part and laying it softly down on boxes in order to avoid ground-touching. Then we put the extension on the old bottom part and lifted finally the top part into the extension. Now the meteorological instruments are again in a height of around 4m. Afterwards, the hole needed to be filled. It was much more wind that day and the drifting snow helped to smoothen the surface around the mast. The days after I did detailed checks on the Brewer, the nephelometer and the cloud condensation nuclei counter (CCN). After many checks and tests Erik and I did in the heart of the Brewer instrument, it was clear that there is some malfunctioning of an electronic control board. And this we cannot fix here, why it will return already with me. The nephelometer also has a serious problem and very probably some parts of the optical interior have to be exchanged. As I do not have them here, it will also return with me. It’s more than a pity that these instruments have to return, but things like these can happen. On the other side, we could fix the pump problem of the CCN and it is working fine since Friday afternoon. So, it’s an up and down here. Apart from the instruments – the landscape around Utsteinen is always fascinating. That it is Antarctic summer is also marked by the snow petrels which are now gliding much more often and in higher number in the wind around our ridge. These birds bring up their chicks here in the mountains (far away from predators), but fetch the food at the coast. The coming days starts already the preparation for our departure.

Saturday, 7 December 2013

Summer at Utsteinen

Time has passed in the meantime. The windy weather of the first week made place for more calm days with a lot of sunshine. Temperature however is still cold, around -10 to -15°C. Yesterday St Nicolas passed. My little family provided me with some self-made items and chocolate to celebrate this day. That was nice and I loved it. Otherwise, we would all just be too busy with our work and a day like that passes easily without anything special to it. I also had a skype call with a school class in the UK, of 8 to 10 year old pupils, on the occasion of Antarctic Day (normally 1st of December). They asked lots of questions on the Antarctic or on how daily life has to be imagined here. One question was also if I built already a snowman. I had to admit, that no. Too busy with work apparently. However, the snow here is too dry and would not be sticky enough. But we could sculpture something with blocks of snow-ice. Anyway, many things have been done. The pyrometer and the precipitation radar are back in operation on the roof. Also the Sun photometer is back on its place on the very top of the station. Its elegant movements to point to the sun and to make measurements make the others often ask me what it is for. In the aerosol shelter, the cloud condensation nuclei counter from Leipzig has been starting its measurements. It seems that there are not many particles in our Utsteinen air which are capable to form cloud droplets. But I need to do some more tests on this. My problem child at the moment is the Brewer ozone spectrophotometer. There is apparently an issue with a turning micrometer, which adjusts some important parts of the optics. Until now we haven’t found out what exactly the problem is, and the instrument keeps Erik and me busy. Last Wednesday morning the expedition team to the coast left (see group image above). They will be doing research in the field for around 10 to 12 days. To get to know what they are looking for, it is best to visit their blog. One of the last days, when wind was almost none, I went around 1 km upwind of the weather station and digged, like last years, a snow pit of 1m depth in order to characterize the different layers of ice (crystal size, habit, density, temperature…). The view was great from there and in weather conditions like that it’s nice to work outside ;-) . Next week, the extension of the mast of the weather station is on my agenda, as is another snow pit, and hopefully putting back into operation the Brewer and the nephelometer.