Impressive field season in summery East Antarctica

/ March 23, 2015/ Ice and Climate, IMAU

10 December 2014, 11 pm. I walk from the kitchen container to my tent to get some sleep. The winds are forceful and create a vague layer of blowing snow above the surface. It is cold now, but the wind is blowing in my back, and that’s comfortable. The snow is crunchy and hard. The sun is just above the horizon and emits a warm, red light on the surface. This is the lowest sun angle of the day, the sun will soon start its new ascent. I am turning my face towards the wind and feel the bitter cold chilling my cheeks and fingers, before opening my tent and quickly reside to my soon-to-be-warm sleeping bag… I am reminding myself how I got here, in coastal East Antarctica, on a scientific expedition…

Last September I was awarded the IBLAF fellowship, a prize for young researchers to perform fieldwork in Antarctica, and only two months later, I departed to the Belgian Princess Elisabeth Station in East Antarctica. The last flight, from Cape Town to Antarctica, was a big experience; since the Russian plane is primarily designed for cargo, and not for passengers, it was a loud and uncomfortable (little did I know what was to come!) six-hour flight, during which we had to change from summer to polar clothing. The landing on the blue ice runway was spectacular but smooth. Yes, finally I would set foot on Antarctica! And I must say, it was cold and windy indeed!

The first week of the expedition, we travelled coastward from the station to the adjacent ice shelf, the floating part of the ice sheet, and I helped other scientists with their work. That is, during the days that we could do anything, because during this week we witnessed two major Antarctic-style blizzards. For four days, we were stuck in the containers, while the ferocious winds created meters high snow drifts around us, and partially destroyed our tents and equipment. The times we were allowed outside were used to dig out the tents as much as possible; during these moments we always went out with at least two people, hand in hand, as one could not see a single meter far. That was truly impressive and unforgettable.

Fortunately, after this week, the weather cleared and we could finally seriously start with our scientific work. During the second and third weeks, I drilled several holes in the snow (5-8 meter deep) to investigate the recent accumulation and melt history of the ice shelf, installed an automatic weather station, measured snow albedo (the snow reflectivity for solar radiation, which strongly interacts with melt), and performed a ~100 km long transect of high-frequency radar measurements to spatially link the snow cores. All these data combined give me information on the temporal and spatial variations of melt that may jeopardize the future of this ice shelf. During this journey I came across some interesting patterns; it appears that melt varies strongly from one place to another on the ice shelf, important knowledge if one wants to point out the “vulnerable” spots of the ice shelf. All this time, we had good to very good weather, even with several days of above-zero daytime temperatures; the snow was slowly melting below our feet!

After three weeks of long stretches of sitting still, alternated with long working days (day and night), we headed back to the station, and about one week later I was sitting home next to the Christmas tree. I found it harder to adapt to the greyness of the western European winter than to the Antarctic cold, so it looks like I passed the test of polar exploration. Next year, we will return to the Antarctic, studying the interactions between snow characteristics and melt in even more detail. I can’t wait!

For more information on my project and pictures of the expedition, visit the Benemelt blog.

Jan Lenaerts


Field season Antarctica

Clockwise from top left: 1) The group of happy scientists after arrival at the Princess Elisabeth station. We were a united group, which is really important if camping in the middle of nowhere for several weeks. 2) Jan measuring snow albedo in the field. 3) The zero-emission Belgian Antarctic station Princess Elisabeth, built on a rocky ridge. In the background the Sôr Rondane Mountains, giving access to the high-elevation Antarctic Plateau. 4) The new-generation weather station after installation. In the background the Sør Rondane mountains , some ~200 km (!!) away. In Antarctica it is hard to estimate distances in the absence of perspective.