During the austral summer season 2023-2024, two colleagues from Université Libre de Bruxelles (ULB), Sibylle Boxho, and from Ghent University (UGent), Paula Lamprea, will undertake an expedition to the Princess Elisabeth station (PEA) as part of the PASPARTOUT project. This project, financed by the Belgian Science Policy Office (BELSPO), aims to gain an in-depth understanding of the links between atmospheric circulation patterns, weather regimes, particles, volatile organic compounds (VOCs) and moisture, along with their implications and changes within a changing global climate. Here you can find a blog where they will report their activities during their stay in Antarctica.
11 – 20 December 2023: Arrival in Cape Town and departure to Princes Elisabeth Antarctica
This journey began on Tuesday, 12 December, with a 15-hour flight from Belgium to Cape Town, South Africa, via Istanbul.
As soon as Sibylle and Paula arrived in Cape Town, they were taken to the International Polar Foundation's (IPF) office to get their cold weather clothes. In other words, all equipment needed to withstand the cold of Antarctica. In total, there were ten people on the first scientific flight to Antarctica.
The flight was initially scheduled for Saturday, 19 December, but due to bad weather conditions it got postponed until the 20 December. On Monday 18 December, we received the flight briefing from ULTIMA ANTARCTIC LOGISTICS, the company in charge of our trip to Antarctica. During this briefing, they explained that we would be making a stopover at the Russian base Novolazarevskaya (Novo) before continuing to the Belgian Princess Elisabeth station.
Finally, after almost 5 days of delay, the big day arrived. Paula, Sibylle and the other eight members of the team headed to Cape Town airport to take off to Antarctica. But above all, before taking off, we all had to decontaminate our shoes and other belongings. Avian flu is raging, and it is absolutely vital to preserve the rare species of birds that live in Antarctica.
This flight to Novo was with an Ilyushin 76 plane (II-76TD), and it took approximately 6 hours. And after all that, finally, the promised land was under our feet... ANTARCTICA! We landed at 12am, and a few minutes later, we boarded the second plane, a Basler DC-3 that brought us to our last destination: Princes Elisabeth Antarctica (PEA).
We finally arrived at PEA on Thursday 21 December, around 3 am local time. The station’s team welcomed us and assisted with unloading of the cargo, which included scientific equipment, as well as food and mechanical parts needed for the station.
21 – 24 December 2023: Training and first impressions
Upon our arrival, we received a brief tour of the facilities, including the workshops, the snow melter, the water treatment plant, the catacombs, the garage and various other crucial locations ensuring the proper functioning of the station.
A 3-dayfield training was ahead of us. This included snowmobile driving, a training on first aid given by the base doctor Mathieux Pasquier, and last but not least, a crevasse rescue exercise. Snowmobiles are indispensable for the various field trips planned during this campaign. Understanding how to handle situations such as the risks of exposure to the cold is crucial in Antarctica. Therefore, during our medical training, we conducted a hypothermia simulation, with Paula playing the role of the victim and being wrapped into a burrito by the team! Finally, given that crevasses—deep cracks formed in a glacier or ice sheet—are one of the most significant hazards in the Antarctic terrain, thorough rescue training is mandatory. So here we find Paula and Sibylle, surrounded by these magnificent yet dangerous glacial structures!
25 – 31 December 2023: Merry Christmas and Happy New Year
Before diving into the intensive field work, it was first time to celebrate Christmas! Even in Antarctica, away from our loved ones, maintaining tradition is crucial for our mental health and well-being. Thus, on Christmas Eve, we all enjoyed a deliciously good meal prepared by our chef, Thomas Duconseille –who, by the way, is one the best chefs! It is hard to believe that we would be eating fresh and delicious food every day in such a remote place. A big thank you to Thomas for keeping us in good shape.
Here at PEA we work 6 days a week and Sunday is usually our resting day: Sunday fun day, if weather conditions allow, of course! On the 25 December, we had the pleasure to visit the Utsteinen Nunatak, including its impressive and majestic windscoop. Utsteinen is the closest nunatak to PEA, and the windscoop is, in fact, one of the most beautiful landscape features in Antarctica. Its name evokes an “icecream scoop” appearance, created by strong winds brushing up the snow on the leeward side of the nunatak.
On Wednesday, 27 December, Paula and Oscar installed the CIMEL sun photometer on the roof of PEA. This instrument is a passive radiometer that measures direct sun and diffuse sky radiances. It measures various primary variables, including the ability to derive a proxy for the aerosol loading of the atmosphere.
Also on this day, Sibylle went to the Vesthaugen Nunatak. This was the perfect opportunity for Sibylle to collect the first rock samples, which will be used to characterize the various local dust outputs present near the station and along the coast path. The rock sampling continued for the next two days. On Friday, 29 December, Sibylle headed to the north of the Vengen Nunatak and on the next day, to the beginning of the plateau on the other side of the Sor Rondane mountain range. There, she visited three Nunataks: Van de Canhamaren, Dillenberget and Goolsnuten. During the journey, she had the opportunity to witness a breath-taking sky, with the sun putting on a spectacular display.
To conclude both the week and the year 2023 on a positive note, we joyously celebrated New Year’s Eve, welcoming the arrival of 2024. This was a great opportunity for the entire team to share traditions and anecdotes, reflecting the diverse nationalities represented at the station.
1 – 7 January 2024: Rock sampling and installation of auto-samplers
On Monday, the 1st of January, Henri Robert, the scientific liaison officer of PEA, taught us how to launch a weather balloon. This activity takes place every Monday, Wednesday and Friday near the north shelter of PEA and it is usually carried out by Henri and Oscar Pickerill, the person responsible for scientific, technical support at PEA. A weather balloon is a latex balloon that carries instruments to the stratosphere. It is inflated with helium and sends back information on temperature, atmospheric pressure, humidity and wind speed using a radiosonde. This time, Sibylle had the honor of launching the balloon, and Paula will take over Henri’s shift starting next week.
On the same day, Sibylle and Paula ascended to the summit of the Utsteinen Nunatak, where a small automatic meteo datalogger is located. This data logger autonomously measures pressure, relative humidity and temperature year round, powered by a small lithium battery. Climbing this nunatak requires some skills that we definitely need to work on, but with the great help of Nicolas Van Hoecke, the managing director of PEA and Tom Sage-Segard, one of the carpenters, our task (data retrieval and battery replacement) was a success. On the way up, we had the chance to see a couple of snow petrels, and at the summit, we enjoyed a spectacular view. An interesting fact about these Antarctic birds is their breeding and feeding behavior. Snow Petrels primarily feed at sea, but breeding occurs in the nunataks (even up to 200 km inland, such as Utsteinen).
With the generous assistance of Thomas Naulin, on Tuesday, 2 January, Paula installed a passive and an automatic air sampler on the roof of the south shelter located in the vicinity of PEA. The passive sampler will provide information on the type and concentration of VOCs present in the Antarctic atmosphere over the course of a year. The automatic sampler, on the other hand, will enable us to collect weekly air samples throughout the year. In this way, we aim to gain valuable insights into the degradation pathways and seasonal patterns of the organic compounds. During this measurement campaign, both the passive and the automatic air sampler will remain at PEA, primarily due to the stable and reliable energy supply. For next year’s campaign (BELARE 2024-2025), both instruments will be deployed near the East Coast, where the interaction with the Southern Ocean is more pronounced. Back in Belgium, the air samples will be analyzed in an unprecedented way. This novelty arises from the recent acquisition of a state-of-the-art equipment designed to enhance the separation, identification, and quantification of organic compounds. Essentially, it consists of a thermal desorption unit coupled with a two-dimensional gas chromatograph and a high-resolution mass spectrometer (TD-GCxGC-HRMS)). Importantly, this marks the first application of this cutting-edge technology to such samples.
Meanwhile, Sibylle installed an automatic snow sampler near PEA. This sampler will autonomously collect snow samples throughout the year, filling four bottles, one every three months. The snow auto-sampler is currently undergoing testing with batteries that will later be recharged with a solar panel, and preliminary tests are being conducted now for the installation of the snow auto-sampler near the coast.
After setting up all their instruments, Sibylle and Paula set off again by snowmobile to take rock samples in the various Nunataks around the station, sometimes within a 70km radius. This took them to the moraine sand, the dry valley close to the station, as well as to the edge of the famous plateau. They also revisited Vesthaugen, but this time in the northern part where the geology differs significantly from that in the south. The majority of the rock samples found are metamorphic rocks, some of them high-grade, as evidenced by the presence of garnet (a very high-pressure mineral). Magmatic rocks (granites) with superb amphibole and biotite minerals were also found near the station at Utsteinen.
8 – 14 January 2024: Last check on the instruments and material before heading to the coast
In a few days, Sibylle and Paula will head to the coast to dig 2 snow trenches (each 2 m deep, 1.5 m wide, and 2m long) and install the automatic snow sampler. This will enable us to better record the distal Potential Source Areas (PSAs) of dust. Snow samples will be taken from these snow trenches at different levels which represent the seasonal deposition of snow for one year. The main goal is to better understand the spatial and temporal variability of dust input at the coast, allowing us to trace the origins of these dust particles. This, in turn, aids in a better comprehension of the atmospheric circulation.
Directly on the field, various analyses will be conducted, including assessments of crystal snow type, snow temperature, deposition rate, and hardness and density of the snow. At ULB, some other analyses will be conducted in a high clean level laboratory, including Δ18O and nitrogen analysis, as well as size and mass concentration of nanoparticles. Sibylle’s primary goal is to precisely measure the trace elements and isotopes in the dust deposited in the snow samples. Therefore, the snow sampling requires careful manipulation to avoid contamination, either from metal tools or drifting snow.
Before departing, practical arrangements should be made. That is why on Tuesday, 9 January, we decided to test our digging skills at PEA and ensure that we have a large enough tent to cover the trenches while we are not sampling.
At the end of this week, on 12 January, a flight was scheduled to bring in new scientists who will be conducting field work for the next weeks. On the next day, we said Goodbye to 8 colleagues, including IPF staff, a doctor, technicians and scientists. It has already been1 month since our departure from Belgium, and some of these colleagues had been with us since the first day. Thus, the departure of this flight brought some nostalgia among us.
15 – 28 January 2024: Fieldtrip near the coast
This week has finally brought one of the long-awaited moments for the PASPARTOUT researchers. On Monday, 22 January, Sibylle and field guide Manu left the Princess Elisabeth station to reach the first sampling zone east of ice rise L01, near the coast. To do this, they had to travel almost 200 km. In Antarctica, the routes are so full of pitfalls that you have to be extra vigilant. With their scientific and camping loads, it took them 10 hours to complete this distance. Fortunately, upon arrival, the weather was favorable, allowing them to set up the camp without any issues.
The main objective of this fieldwork was to recover samples of mineral dust (inorganic particles) present in snow precipitation in Antarctica. Among other things, this will be used to analyse their chemical composition in order to gain a better understanding of where the dust that reaches Antarctica comes from. Does it come solely from local rocks (e.g. Sor Rondane) or does it come from elsewhere, such as Africa? All in all, this will give us a better understanding of atmospheric circulations in the southern hemisphere. Furthermore, it will enable us to measure the impact that this dust can have on a depositional environment such as Antarctica, as it plays a very important role in understanding global warming and its effects on the environment.
The sampling process was twofold. Firstly, a trench 2 m deep was dug to analyse level-by-level the composition of one year's snowfall (dust). The levels were defined to closely approximate the different periods of time that cover a year (e.g. months, seasons). In a second phase, the automated snow sampler was installed and will remain on site for a full year. This autosampler will collect 4 samples of snow, each representing three months of snowfall and therefore 1 year of dust in Antarctica. The last part of all this work wille be the analyses of these snow samples that will be done in the very high level clean laboratory G-TIME at the Université Libre de Bruxelles (ULB).
On Tuesday 23 the 2 m-deep trench was dug. After that, it was time for Sibylle to get down to work, starting by cleaning the sampling wall of any potential external contamination. Initially, measurements were taken on the snow itself, including temperature, density and hardness, as well as the size and type of snow grains. Afterwards, small samples of 200 mL of snow were taken level by level to later measure at ULB the delta 18O (oxygen isotope) and nitrogen in the snow. Additionally, larger 10 L snow samples were taken to further analyse the chemical composition of the dust in the snow, including metallic elements and rare earth elements (REE).
After three days of sampling, every samples were collected in the Trench. It was time to install the automatic snow sampler. This instrument will need to be operational for the entire year and so also during the winter in Antarctica; therefore, a box filled with 6 batteries coupled to a photovoltaic panel was needed and was install to store enough energy.
During the field campaign, a small visitor arrived at the camp to confirm that the mission had been a complete success. On Saturday, 27 January, an Adélie penguin accompanied the camp’s activities for the entire morning before the team returned to the Princess Elisabeth Station with "penguins in their eyes".
9-11 February 2024: Organising cargo for return trip and last days
It is almost time to leave, and before doing so, we must be sure that all our equipment, samples and personal belongings are well-packed. We are flying back to Cape Town via Novo, with a technical stopover in Perseus. All the scientists and a significant number of IPF staff are leaving with us. It is almost the end of the BELARE 2023-2024 season, and the remaining people at PEA stay to finish their work and close the station.
Overall, we spent 7 weeks in East Antarctica, got to know the first zero-emission research station in Antarctica, adapted to the PEA’s way of living, had the chance to see penguins at L0, experienced the lowest temperatures in our lives, and, of course, successfully installed our instruments and took the required samples for our research. This has clearly been a unique experience in our lives. Therefore, we like to thank Belspo for the funding, IPF for the organization before, during, and after our expedition, Alexander Mangold for the project coordination, and our respective professors -Nadine Mattielli from ULB and Christophe Walgraeve from UGent- for their continuous help and support during this expedition.
Until next opportunity,
Sibylle and Paula