During the austral summer season 2020-2021 colleagues of us from the Royal Belgian Space Aeronomy Institute and from Ghent University have been at Princess Elisabeth station for research in the freme of the CHASE and CLIMB projects. Here, you can find a blog of Preben Van Overmeiren of Ghent University, of the EnVOC group in which he reports on the activities during his stay in Antarctica.
Blog 3 (23 December 2020) Last of the scientists
Three weeks in Antarctica pass like nothing! The past few weeks we were busy installing and maintaining all instruments in and around the station, doing some weather balloon launches and getting in the field! One full week of bad weather meant I could focus on building the autonomous energy system for our remote site. With some help of the station’s electrical engineer, Benoit and the sustainable energy specialist Guus we settled on a design but as Guus was still quarantaining (verb of the year?) in Cape Town and Benoit was busy, it was up to me to convert the idea to a working unit. The system would consist of a large battery pack, totalling 130 kg yikes- , which will be charged with 300 watt solar panels and a 350 watt wind turbine. The wind turbine ensures we’ll have power during winter when there is no or very little sunlight, while the solar energy is perfect when there is enough light to maintain the batteries. Some specialized controllers, strategic fuses and lot’s of cable make it a complete package.
The system is smart enough to shut down the load (in this case the instruments) when the battery charge becomes to low, and dumps energy into a resistor when there is too much, all to protect the batteries. Building such a system on Antarctica requires a lot of creativity and improvisation, for example the station has quite a big stock of different metal poles, but of course, not one of them fitted our wind turbine. Pierre, the chief mechanic, came up with a solution and used a machine for hydraulic connections to compress a larger tube to the required diameter. Eventually 3 instruments will be powered year-round, a disdrometer measuring all types of precipitation, an optical particle detector which looks at the smallest particles in the air and our automatic VOC sampler. Together they will make up a really unique atmosphere chemistry observatory!
By the time everything was ready for a test, weather cleared up and the wind passed away, testing will be for another day! The clear skies and low winds created a window for maintaining and removing the CHASE passive sampling sites in the field. Henri, Alexis, me and a little chainsaw combined our forces as a lot of digging was to be done. After between 3 and 4 years on the field the metal poles with the instruments mounted on the top received a lot of snow accumulation and as the project is reaching the end, we decided to remove most of them. In practice, this meant to dig out 3 poles per site of which the wooden anchor is between 1.5 and 2.5 meters deep in the snow. In 2 days we visited 4 sites of which 3 were succesfully removed, good exercise, the one left will be continued to be serviced. Just in time actually because the next day (16/12/2020) Alexis, together with 6 others will already be leaving us and start their trip home. For me it’s not over yet, with the delays we’ve had in Cape Town I was still far away from completing my work package so I decided to stay until the next flight, one month later. It feels strange to say goodbye to the others as orginally I was also set to leave with this flight, furthermore I’ll be the only scientist left! Well at least I get to celebrate a white Christmas this year
Blog 2 (16 December 2020) The scientific programme
Arriving only a few days instead of a few weeks after the initial opening of the station meant a lot of the preparation work still needed to be done. Prinoth tractors were still locked in a garage of which the gate was completely snowed under, skidoo’s still stored in their blankets in containers and the water supply was just getting started. It is impressive to see the crew move fast and work long days to make sure the station is approaching 100% functionality in a week. There will be only 3 scientist present this year. Armin is a German PhD student working for EPFL in Laussanne in the Cryos group. He’ll be studying how the snow surface evolves and the relationship with snow mass balance. Continuing the work of Hendrik Huwald last year he’ll take care of some weather stations and do some drone flights which result in high resoltion aerial images.
My collegue Alexis is French and works at the BIRA-IASB institute in Uccle, where he studies atmospheric compounds using remote sensing. Together with myself we will work on the closure of the CHASE project, for which we need to collect all the passive collectors which are spread out from the coast to the mountains, and maintain our active aerosol/gas phase atmospheric sampling capacity at the station. We’ll also take care of the snow scooping and firn coring Stefania used to do for the past 2 years. Furthermore we’ll be busy with starting up the CLIMB project. In order to look at the smallest aerosols and particles which play an important role in the formation of clouds we’re installing highly sensitive equipment in the shelters and on the roof of the station. The first priorities are thus to get all the equipment installed and running so an as long as possible time record can be achieved.
Alexis had his hands full with installing 2 spectro-photometers on the notch of the roof, the MAX-DOAS and CIMEL (read an interview with Alexis here). The information will be used to determine the concentration of small organic and inorganic molecules year-round. I set up several filter based measurements which collect the actual particles on a filter paper by pumping a set amount of air on it. An important objective for CLIMB is to install a remote samping site at a high altitude to sample the atmosphere close or even in the clouds. The instruments there will have to withstand dramatic conditions while a autonomous power source supplies power for the complete year. The aim is to grasp how VOC’s and particles interact with the cloud formation process. The most interesting period to monitor is also the most difficult one, spring. As the atmospheric reservoir will be filled during winter with a lot of reactive species which can go through all kind of chemical transformation as soon as the sun rises above the horizon again. In order to see this event the instruments and power source will need to survive the harsh winter, a good location is thus key! Finding the ideal site which is a bit sheltered from catabatic winds (100+ kph), high enough in altitude, has solid rocks to make a good anchor and has good accesibility proved quite a challenge.
After some gazes at maps and sattelite images 2 sites, one on a mountain ridge next to the Gunnestad glacier and the other one on a nunatak (small rock formation sticking out of the snow) on the Antarctic plateau were retained, both needed to be visited to check if they comply to our criteria. During a first reconnaissance we did with Alain (expedition leader), Gigi (station management) and Martin (field guide and doctor), we ended up in an extreme catabatic event and had to return on our tracks. It was impressive to witness and be subjected to such high and constant wind speeds. Visibility is highly reduced and the blowing snow manages to find its way everywhere including the inside of your helmet. Two days later we had a second attempt and found ourselves in better weather. Eventually we decided to choose the nunatak (still have to find a name for our little rock, suggestions?) as our installation site! Sheltered by a bigger nunatak and at 2350m above sea level it is ideal. Next up: designing and building the remote power unit, as the instruments we put there will rely completely on solar and wind energy!
Blog 1 (9 December 2020) THE ITINERARY
November and December, for most people it means the end of the year, Christmas and New Year. For people working on Antarctica those months mark the start of the Austral summer and thus the beginning of the expedition season. However with 2020 proving to be quite the challenge, most big research expeditions to the white continent were cancelled well in advance. Of course there will be a rotation crew going to the overwintering stations to relieve the personel who hibernated and together with this some logistical operations will be organized.
But in fact, Belgium is one of the only nations having a fully fledged research expedition to its Princess Elisabeth Station and will execute around 80% of the scientific programme. For us it is a blessing! Retrieving our atmosphere samples which are being exposed since last year is of the utmost importance to finalize and complete the dataset we wanted to achieve in the CHASE project. As the project is in its final year, some extra work will need to be done to dismantle the equipment which has no further future in other projects. On the other hand we’ll also be kicking off a new research project, CLIMB, which is aimed at obtaining a better understanding on cloud formation chemistry and mechanics. The two scientists on the field, Alexis Merlaud from BIRA-IASB and me will be having our hands full but we are very grateful to the Internation Polar Foundation, the operator, to have taken on this challenge despite COVID holding the world in its grasp.
The biggest challenge was probably to make sure we didn’t import the virus to the only continent which has been spared from it. To do this, our iternary started with a PCR test in Brussels a few days before departure to Cape Town. Upon arrival we had to quarantaine for 14 days, this meant we couldn’t have any contact with anyone outside or inside the research expedition, except for with our Doc who came by every once in a while for a Covid test. To keep the body and mind sane several outdoor activities in the Table Mountain national park were organized but social distancing was strictly respected. Though times, especially when the flight to Antarctica was seemingly postponed every other day prolonging our stay in Cape Town with 10 days! But the 26th of november the day finally arrived, we boarded the IL-76 plane (which was fully desinfected, and the flight crew of course had to sustain the same quarantaine) and took off to Novo Airbase.
Upon landing it were the first steps on Antarctica for my colleague Alexis, for me breathing in the cold air, having the wind blow on my face and the crisp snow underneath my boots, made me excited of what is on our path the coming weeks. Unfortunately our patience was to be tested once more. As we were too many to fly to the station with 1 DC-3 feeder flight, the scientists and the science liason, Henri, were left behind in Novo together with most of the cargo while the bigger part of the IPF crew left on the first flight in order to already start clearing the station of snow. We would then, as soon as the DC-3 made it’s return, load it with the cargo and join the others at the station. However bad weather meant we had to spend 2 nights in Novo. Saturday 28th of November, almost 1 month after departure in Brusses we finally arrived at the station, at last! The work can begin!