My journey to the bottom of the world

14 Dec 2016 | News
The Antarctica blog of European Commission science expert Didier Schmitt – a special Science|Business feature

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.

In a month from now it will become difficult to work outside on this continent.

Typical duties range from a new restaurant roof to the replacement of heat pipes between buildings. Food storage and drinkable water is also vital for the winter-over team. The ratio between technical and scientific personnel is 50-50. This is much better than in some other bases where the ratio is 20-80, to the detriment of scientists.

The ice sheet just above the Prudhomme station has now melted completely. I walked on moraine rocks that were never visible before. Young Adélie penguins are well fed here; but they suffer from “the heat” (+3°C).

After a cold wind the sea-ice became slightly thicker and four of us walked to an opening to watch Weddell seals: an adult with a youngster (probably already weighing 200 kg). Testing the ice with a stick to find the proper return path was tricky. 

This was my last venture; it is time to pack now.

A DC-3 plane was finally able to land at Concordia and flew all 15 scientists back, just in time. They were flown to the boat directly from the landing strip. My flight from the station to the Astrolabe ship by helicopter (50 km) was fabulous as the weather was perfect. 

The most amazing view was from the boat itself: 30 and 40 metre high icebergs are just a few 100 metres away. One of them drifted towards the ship a few days ago and the captain had to swerve to avoid a crunch.

We didn't have much time to enjoy this view as the boat left right after the last helicopter rotation. However, passing by the icebergs in the evening was also marvellous since the sunset gave them a pink reflection.

Crossing the ice-pack when it gets dark provided yet another experience, with colours changing from red to orange and to yellow; the moon cress providing the icing on the cake.

On my journey I’ve travelled by train, plane, bus, boat, helicopter, caterpillar tractor, skidoo, snowplough, and twin otter. Difficult to summarise such a trip. No travel agent could offer even a fraction of it. 

It is probably the most remote and challenging 'scientific adventure', apart from going to the International Space Station.

As we left the Antarctic Ocean crossing 60 degrees south the sea became rough, as expected.

This however does not deter fishermen, as it is the richest sea in the world for catch. Unfortunately, it is also the most vulnerable to temperature rise as its fauna, Krill in particular, evolved during one million years in a stable and untouched environment. This is why in October 2016 over 1 million square kilometres of the Antarctic Ocean became the world's largest protected marine environment, but only for the next 35 years. 

The trusty Astrolabe will do its last round trip from Hobart to the Antarctica research base in two weeks. The brand new Astrolabe 2 is now in final construction stage and will make its maiden trip next October. Law enforcement on fishery is a problem out here in such a remote area; the Astrolabe 2 will therefore be used by the French navy to patrol the area eight months a year when the ship is not used by the French Polar Institute. 

Antarctica has geopolitical interests; it is obvious when looking at it on the map, located between Africa, South America and Australia. 

The Madrid protocol in 1991 clearly sets the scene: the Antarctic is dedicated to peace and science. But the current agreement runs out in 2048 and some are already contemplating the possible vast fossil resources that lie under its ice.

We need to remain vigilant as the Antarctic Ocean is the last one that remains pristine. There have been lost opportunities already, as European cooperation between Antarctic institutes remains weak compared with other areas like space.

Despite the existence of the European Polar Board, pooling and sharing is only done on a significant scale in the Concordia station. It remains an exception when compared to the 40 or so Antarctic scientific bases. 

A push is needed, and it can only come from Brussels. What about a European Polar Agency? This is a straight forward occasion for the EU to present a positive image by leading the way.

When you look at a map from the northern hemisphere you never much gaze at the white continent. However, Europe as a whole ought to be more present in international fora dealing with the fate of Antarctica. 

For example, regulating tourism should be all on our agendas, as it grows exponentially: 40,000 came last year from the western peninsula. Antarctica and its ocean is a common good that we must preserve. 

I look forward to intensifying the discussion back in Brussels. 

 Changing climate seals fate of penguin chicks 

Some of the sea-ice has started to melt around the island were the research station is build. It was fascinating, although I was a little anxious too. 

Below the first ice crust there is about 20-30 cm water and then some softer ice (called 'sorbet’). We have some survival equipment and radios to call for help if we need it; helicopters are never far away.

Anyway, the landscape is marvellous as we walked between icebergs caught in ice-sheets of various textures. A few noises remind us that the glacier is very active and that we can't go close to it – it advances by two metres a day on average! 

The penguins are looking for fishing openings; they are curious and wonder what we are doing here. A seal has been spotted by the marine-life biologists; they first check if it is already electronically marked – it was not, so we tagged it under the skin. Like penguins, seals are not afraid of humans.

Having still sea-ice at this time a year is like having snow in July in Belgium.

Sea-ice does actually not melt away but is broken apart by waves and higher tides created by storms. The wind then blows the fragments away in a matter of days, sometimes even overnight. But this has not happened this year; it may still occur, but the cold season is expected to kick in again in a few weeks and that will stabilise the crust for the rest of the year.

This is not good news for penguins. Even if some Adélie chicks are still alive – I saw a few that seemed in good health – ornithologists tell me they won't make it, as they can't walk to the open sea which is about 80 km away. All Emperors have now left; the few chicks that survived won't make it either. Yesterday I saw three, very close, they seemed lost; today I found two dead ones on the ice only 2 km from the shore.

Other consequences of the unusual weather condition are that up to now the diving team could not recover the devices left on the sea bottom a few years ago for marine biologists.

The nice weather is beneficial for outside construction work. Life in and outside the research base is like a beehive as most activities can only be done between October and February; it is a race against time.

The ice sheet gets more dangerous by the day. Crevasses form around the island. A small team went out to test the ice thickness by careful drilling.

American, Australian, Belgian, Spanish, Swiss and Japanese scientists and technicians are present on the base. A significant proportion of the research is done by PhD students, especially during winter-over. Glaciology is the main activity in Antarctica, obviously.

To get a flavour of the field work I went with a team to explore the top of a glacier. We spent several hours dismounting and remounting a GPS station. It was the 'hottest' day they ever experienced here; we were only wearing shirts.

Ornithologists study Adélie behaviour using camera sensors and very advanced image analysis to track individual birds. Massive 'big data' is generated and computed by a mathematician who joined the team. Birds are tracked with GPS and other sensors; the team was relieved when a few equipped birds came back to their nests. The scientists take day and 'night' shifts for visual identification and removal of the sensors without harming the animal. Others study the predator birds' life cycles.

There’s a mass of science being done besides. Light Doppler Effect technology, or LIDAR, is used to evaluate real snow fall and windblown snow. Meteorology balloons are released every day, whatever the weather conditions.

In addition, air chemicals are trapped and ozone-based catalysis evaluated. Seismology and magnetometer instruments and their wiring are renewed at various places. There is even time synchronisation for satellites by means of an atomic clock.

At the continental Prudhomme station, just 5 km away, the third and last raid is nearly ready to leave; it is about double the size of the one I participated in. The scientists are in a hurry as temperatures on the return trip, in three weeks, can easily drop down to -50 on the plateau.

Finally, it is about time for me to leave. Unfortunately, for some the planning has changed significantly! The plane which should bring one team back from Concordia to DDU (to catch the Astrolabe back to Tazmania) has a significant technical problem. I am lucky to have gotten out in time. 

January 19 Exploring the base 

Inside the base the medical biology laboratory is headed by a doctor employed by the European Space Agency who will perform experiments on the winter crew. It is a programme I put in place 12 years ago, as Concordia is a perfect planetary base analogue. 

I had the chance to do a couple of other things outside, including a nice visit to the astronomy telescopes. The atmosphere above Concordia is the cleanest worldwide! By recent multi-parameter measurements it is two times better than the Paranal site in the Atacama Desert. 

Next I climbed the 'American tower', a 40 metre high aluminium structure full of meteorological instruments placed at various heights, which helps to improve climate models. During winter someone needs to climb it every week, whatever the temperature (which goes down below 80°C). 

Antarctica’s ice cap is an average of 2 km above sea level and contains 70 per cent freshwater. If it were to melt, along with Iceland's cap, the dilution of the seawater would invert currents and lead to a rapid ice age in Europe.

During four days at the base no one knew when we could leave as the plane was unable to depart due to weather conditions. A recent deadly accident reinforced the flight safety rules. 

I would have stayed longer but unfortunately, my name was on the list of nine 'pax' to go on the next available plane (no one knows when the next one flies). The flight was an amazing experience in itself as we crossed the 1,100 km of icy landscape, following the tracks of our Raid. We flew over them at very low altitude, also to inspect the back-up runway we prepared on our way to Concordia. 

Concordia is the only bi-national base in Antarctica; a pity that there has not been more 'Europeanisation' done so far by other stations. An EU initiative here would be welcome. 

Before leaving I got some unusual stamps in my passport!

I am now eager to spend more time in Dumont D'Urville, the French station, where a lot of science is going on as well.

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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