My journey to the bottom of the world

The Antarctica blog of European Commission science expert Didier Schmitt – a special Science|Business feature

Didier Schmitt on its way to Antarctica. Photo credit: Institut polaire francais IPEV

What happens when a European Commission science expert travels to the coldest, windiest, and remotest research hub on the planet?

Follow the trek of Didier Schmitt, of the European External Action Service, to the French-Italian Concordia Station located 1,100 kilometres inside Antarctica. In dispatches through February, he will share his thoughts on life, work and policy among researchers in a land 85 degrees below freezing.

My GPS indicates we are at 3,271 metres. A few minutes after we passed the 75th parallel our scout vehicle informs us by radio that we can see the two towers of the research base. A few minutes later I can also distinguish the can-shaped structures; they appear grey on a white horizon.

At that point, we were 17 kilometres from the target and that still means a one and a half hour drive; a snail-pace. I actually feel like a sailor discovering an island after ages at sea.

The 'inhabitants' are eager to meet us; some come to us with skidoos and others are taking pictures or film our arrival while the convoy carefully enters the huge parking area. There are only two to three such events a year and we bring much awaited supplies.

I see a few familiar faces from the Astrolabe (they came here by plane – the lucky ones!). We hug like friends who have not seen each other for years!

After our eleventh day, and a further 12 hours staring at the white road with constant concentration, we are fully relieved to reach the base as we had no major mechanical breakdown, and we are all safe.

A highlight of our trip here was an exchange of Tweets with Thomas Pesquet, an astronaut who is currently on the International Space Station.

Re-fuelling and mechanical check-ups are left for the next day. For the time being, it’s a celebration.

The station is much bigger than I imagined. The base towers are built on huge pillars, three stories high. Nine flags are visible: Canada, Belgium (that is for me), France, Germany, Italy, Japan, UK, and USA. The ninth is the EU flag!

The entrance of the base is in the middle of the two towers: It is a big freezer door – except that you are getting out of the freezer, not into one. The first thing is to get rid of the winter layers.

To the right there is the 'noisy tower', hosting the life-support systems (food storage, water recycling, electricity generators, restaurant and leisure). To the left there is the 'quiet tower': dorms, gym, labs, informatics support and the ‘control post'.

I have done many interesting things up to now, like parabolic plane flights (weightlessness) or a 300 metre deep-dive in a mini-submarine. But this 'bottom of the world' endeavour is definitely the most interesting. It is a fantastic and inspirational experience, like floating in time and space.

Concordia station is the most remote place on earth. In winter, temperatures go down to -85°C and during 100 days you can't see the sun. The location has been chosen because underneath are nearly 3,500 metres of ice that hide remarkable secrets.

I am eager to discover all facets of this fascinating land.

Our slow-motion Mad Max adventure

While you enjoyed a well-deserved holiday with your families a lot has been going on this side of the world.

My journey to the Concordia research station is 1,150 kilometres, lasting 11 days; if all goes well. It is like driving from Brussels to Toulouse with a tractor and seeing nothing but an ice sheet. 

Because large supply items could not be unloaded from the Astrolabe – our research ship – we set off with a ‘small’ raid; a 300 tonne and 300 metre long convoy! 

On Christmas day, a helicopter came for us; there was a quick group photo and off we went. For this trek to the base, we are two Italians and four French. While some deliver gifts with reindeer, we do it with tractors weighing 22 tonnes.

Everyone is in charge of a vehicle; no passengers allowed. I had only a few hours to test drive the day before leaving.

During the first snow storm I felt what it is to work in such extreme conditions. We are in the middle of nowhere; 24 hour sunlight and a sky that has very unusual features. It can get much nastier in November and February: -55 degrees and 130 km/h winds with no visibility.

Nevertheless, it is such a great experience to be crossing this frozen continent. On day four of our trip we already reached 2,000 metres, which is the average ice sheet thickness of the continent. 

Because the air is much thinner here than on the equator, the oxygen levels are equivalent to what you’d find at 3,800 metres in the Alps. The landscape, but also the work, is breath-taking (this is one of the reasons we underwent specific medical training).

We will arrive at our base a day later than foreseen. I am eager to discover the "ice village" at the end of this slow-motion Mad Max adventure.

Yesterday we got stuck in the moving ice-sheets (pack-ice). We turned to satellite imagery and helicopter scouting to find our way out. After an 18 hour double shift we finally gave up.

Some 100 kilometres of thick sea-ice separates us from the the continent – so we had to unload passengers by helicopter. It was a breath taking experience. The payloads we have with us will need around 50 more helicopter trips.

Sustaining winter-over teams in the Antarctica to collect constant data is essential for improving our understanding of climate change and marine life. From a human and logistics point of view it isn't an easy task; the harsh environment prevents any rescues during nine months of the year.

Unlike the Arctic, Antarctica is not much on the EU’s radar, and not much in the news either. It deserves more attention as a scientific heaven – despite the existence of a European Polar Board, not enough research is done in common at European level.

Interestingly the base I’m going to is also used by the European Space Agency and EU for calibration of the atomic clocks for the GNSS Global Navigation System. The accuracy must be one millionth of a billionth of a second.

The very first encounter I’ve had with local life is penguins and seals, first at sea and then at shore. It is actually the only wildlife that exists here, and they sometimes pop up between the base’s several buildings!

But not much time is left to look around; we must prepare ‘the raid convoy’ for our trip to bring supplies to the scientists. 

One day after departure and sea sickness has kicked in. 

At least half of the crew mates don't come out of their rooms anymore. Even though the waves are "only" 8 metres high, the boat is like a cork floating in a river.

We are nine nationalities on board: American, Australian, French, Indonesian, Italian, Japanese, Spanish, Swiss and Ukrainian. Predominantly men – of the 45 scientists and technicians, nine are women.

Our departure time was delayed because of a strong storm that created 15 metre high waves just south of Tasmania. We finally left, with another weather front coming in quickly. 

Even though our ship, the Astrolabe, is medium-sized (64 metres) it is not easy to navigate your way on-board at first, but we had ample time to get familiar with it during the days we were grounded in the dock at Hobart, Tasmania’s capital.

Up to now the ship captain has only had access to very low-resolution satellite imagery to help him plan his route through the ice. But with the help of EU-backed Copernicus observation satellites, we can now do much better.

The satellites – procured and managed by the European Space Agency – are a revelation in places where the winter is dark for months on end and the skies can experience a lot of cloud.We whipped up a pilot project on the spot, and got the data of our route before leaving the port (they are very informative).

The remaining trip ahead of us is far from straightforward: the ice quality and quantity changes constantly due to strong winds and currents. You can easily get trapped; it was the case in 2012 for example, when a boat was stuck for 45 days.

There is 80 km ice shelf in front of the Dumont D'Urville coastal station, located on a small island 5 km off the North East tip of Antarctica where our ship is due to dock, so we needed to secure a helicopter and pilots first. 

We’ll meet the first icebergs next week Tuesday; more from me then.

Stormy passage to the world's last wilderness 

It started with a long-awaited email.

In October, I received an invitation from The French Polar Institute Paul-Emile Victor – named after a legendary French explorer – to be part of an incredible expedition to the most remote research hub on earth: the French-Italian Concordia Station in Antarctica.

What can you say to these once-in-a-life-time opportunities but “Yes”?

My trip to the bottom of the world won’t see me playing the tourist. The main mission of the team I will join is to bring food and other supplies to the station – located 1,100 kilometres inland at an altitude of 3,200 metres – so its 12 crew-members can survive the winter.

To prepare for the coldest, driest and windiest conditions on Earth, I had to undergo a week-long training last September near Chamonix, a resort near the junction of France, Switzerland and Italy, with the medical doctors who will staff the French bases in Antarctica, including Concordia, for the year to come.

In the Antarctica, it helps to have many skills – I’ll be pitching in to drive the caterpillars that will make up our little convoy and, being a medical doctor specialised in mountain emergency, I will also be the medic back-up. Before I came to Brussels, I worked with the Polar Institute already back in 1993 as a scientist studying the effects of extreme environments on the human body. 

Packing my suitcase for the journey was a special challenge. The first leg of my trip took me to Australia, where the temperature is pushing past 30 – so shorts and tee-shirts had to find space next to my big winter jacket.

Because no nation owns any land there, Antarctica is not considered “a country”– so you don’t need a visa (strictly speaking, you don’t need a passport either!).

You don’t need to get any special vaccinations either – no bug can survive the frozen environment.

The Astrolabe ice-breaker

What I did need to acquire was a special maritime visa. Yesterday I began my passage to the frozen continent by a boat called the Astrolabe which set off from Hobart, the capital city of Tasmania, with 400,000 litres of fuel and over hundred tonnes of supplies. The giant sea crossing south to Adélie land, our entry point into Antarctica, will take us seven days at least, depending on weather and sea ice conditions (it is also the part of the trip I have the least excitement for!).

It will be one of the very last journeys of the Astrolabe, which has been in use by the French polar institute for 30 years. Next year a new polar logistics vessel will replace it, and spend most of its time helping the French Navy to monitor things like illegal fishing in the Southern Indian Ocean.

These vessels cost significant amounts of cash. It’s best then if they are optimised, or 'Europeanised', as much as possible. However, the maritime research sector as a whole is still a weak area in EU research policy. Indeed, only a marginal part of its activities are financed by EU grants (for example Eurofleets). One of the reasons is that every country has its own specifications when it comes to building research vessels mostly because research priorities – geographically and thematically – are scattered.

When working as programme manager at the European Space Agency, I signed an agreement to use the Concordia Station as a space training analogue for human adaptation to isolation and confinement and a place to test waste water recycling technologies. The programme is in its twelfth year now and tens of European scientists have used this unique facility.

At the EU’s diplomatic wing, the External Action Service, where I am now, we look after security for space assets and also the use of satellites for security purposes. At first blush, it wouldn’t seem space has much to do with the Antarctica – but it does, as the reader will discover later!

Depending on satellite coverage, and also my on stomach, I will get back to you with further news and pictures from this exceptional and stormy sea trip. We will travel 2,700 km, which is equivalent to Lisbon – Reykjavík, but without the luxury of a four-star cruise ship and a tranquil sea.

Seasickness patches are in place.

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