Nov. 30 2018: The Freezing Traverse to the Plateau

After being on the Antarctic Plateau, I promise I won’t complain about cold anymore.

9 AM UTC Time, the Hilux fully loaded with the necessary stuff and not 3, but 4 Musketeers ready for the next adventure!  65 km to our final destination. On a regular route you will probably cover this distance in less than an hour. In Antarctica, 4 hrs. We can’t go more than 15 Km/Hr. Skidoos are faster, but we are not warm, we can’t talk, and for sure they are not that comfy.  So, well the “slow motion” is worthy then.  Around 1:30 pm we reached the first sampling site. -18C.  Cold, of course, but not bad.  With the help of Henri and Manu, we get to work.  We can’t spend too much time here because we still have a new sampling site to go to. It’s only 16 Km away from this one, which means ~1 Hr driving if we are lucky and the terrain is in good condition.

After almost 2 hours, we’re done here, and we begin our trip to the next point: The Deep Plateau.  The landscape is just incredible, and the more we drive the more I notice and feel the difference.  Katabatic winds blowing harder, temperature decreasing pretty fast to ~-23°C and voila! here we are, in the middle of nowhere. To the side, you turn your head and look at the most beautiful flat, white and bright 360 panorama you can ever imagine.

Before getting out of the car, two very important things. Number one: organization of all the tasks to do. Each of us is responsible for doing something different.  That way we can achieve the goal efficiently but quickly due to the low temperatures.  Number two: (but this one is just for me) to be ready with the “ultraclean outfit” in order to minimize the contamination of the samples as much as possible.  Being aware of the chilly temperature, hand warmers are in between my two gloves, but I was not prepared to be blasted by the wind!  In a matter of seconds my vinyl gloves were completely frozen and, with that, my fingers as well; the -23°C feels like -30°C! So, I ran to the Hilux to take the gloves out and replace them with regular plastic gloves. I am sorry for science in this point. But if I lose my fingers now I won’t be able to complete my mission in Antarctica and so far, we only have 3 out of 7 sites done! Safety first.

While I’m sampling snow, my folks are installing the three new poles we need at this new site.  Two for the organic compounds and one for the inorganic materials.  We all finished almost at the same time.  So, either I took a long time for the sampling or they did their job very fast.  6:30 PM and we’re finally done, high fives for the 4 of us.  Nice freezing job!  But the satisfaction of seeing our samplers set up is a great feeling.  It’s not easy to work in extreme conditions but always possible when even the small details were triple-checked before going.  After another 4 ½ hours we’re back home.  Princess Elisabeth station is so quiet because it’s almost midnight and the whole crew, except us, is asleep. Christine has left 4 plates ready with dinner for us on the counter in the kitchen.  That was so nice of her.

And that is how our traverse ended.  Full tummies, happy hearts!  Goodnight everybody. 😉

Until the next blog.

Stefania

Nov. 28 2018: The Bad Guy: The Antarctic Weather

Unpredictable, changeable, variable, unstable. All in one.  But seriously how bad it could be? Well, pretty bad indeed. Awful and very frustrating.

I cannot even mention how many times these past days Preben and I were ready to go, but literally ready, and at the last minute a new forecast changes everything. So far, we have three missions aborted, and one of them we were so close, only 12 Km away but unfortunately, we had to come back. The combination of strong winds and not an easy terrain make us to return for safety. Anyway, we came back safe and sound to the station, without samples and not with a smiling face. The lesson to be learned: working on this kind of environments requires extra patience! And never giving up…

The morning of Tuesday November 27th, was so much productive for us. Not because the weather was good but because we managed to finish the installation of 3 active pumps, for both organic and inorganic compounds. Preben came up with a very smart idea to improve the inlet of my active pump and after seeing the new modification installed on the roof of the “Atmos shelter”, our little and cozy “office” for the next weeks, we are very happy with the results!  So now the smile is back in our faces!

Wednesday is the day of preparation for our, hopefully, next field trip to the Plateau. A traverse of ~75 Km to be done in the Hilux for safety reasons. We have two sampling sites to visit. One from the previous season and a new site in a more challenging area in the deep Plateau to increase the resolution of our sampling. We are very excited to complete this traverse so I’ll tell you more in the next blog.

Cheers to all the readers,

Stefania.

Nov. 22, 2018: Doing Science is always Fun!

Thursday, November 22st, sledge attached to the skidoo, Zarges boxes loaded with all the required material to work on field, and coordinates on our GPS, Preben, Henry (the chief scientist) and me are ready to go 4 Km away from Princess Elisabeth Station.

3, 2, 1.. Let’s do it! 20 minutes later we arrive onsite and from the distance we can see our poles standing. YES. Nice feeling, we found everything as expected. We parked the skydoos few meters behind the site in order to avoid contamination.  To continue protecting our samples as much as possible, it’s time for me to dress up a little bit. And yes, you can laugh, with the wind blowing and inflating my uniform I look like an astronaut! Two different kinds of samples I have to take care of. First, I’m gonna collect snow samples into a pre-cleaned 10L bottle that will remain frozen upon return to our lab in Brussels. Second, I’m going to replace the filters from the passive dust collectors known as Sigma2 placed by Nadine during the previous season (1-year sampling period). While Preben is taking care of his organic collectors I am dealing with mine, and Henry is helping us with whatever we need and is the named photographer ;).

After almost 2 hours we are done! We are very happy of our work, so we came back to the station to store the samples in the freezer and re-organize everything until the next field trip that will depend, of course, as everything in Antarctica, on the weather!

Tefi

Nov. 19/21: Staying Alive and much more

“Ah, ha, ha, ha, stayin’ alive, stayin’ alive

Ah, ha, ha, ha, stayin’ alive…”

 

That is not only a Bee Gees song. It’s also the same tempo of 100 beats per minutes at which one should give chest compressions during CPR. What do we know about Hypothermia?? Five different stages and trust me after the talk, you don’t want to experience none of them! Thank you so much Dr. Sandra for your great training and advices! These past days were full of very important and valuable lessons. We learned a lot. Briefly, when you are in the field you are not alone, you are responsible not only for yourself but also for the rest of team.

After such important classes it looks like we are ready to start doing some real work. With the skydoos warm up, it is time for me and Preben to start taking care of some stuff located in the “Atmos shelter”. Here Preben has a High Volume Sampler and I have an Active pump. Both samplers are designed to collect atmospheric particles but the kind of filters we use and scientific goals we look at are different.  I focus in the inorganic composition and he looks at the organic compounds. At the same time, in this shelter there are also a couple of instruments from some of our colleagues who are not here this year. That means we were trained before to take care of these devices. Preben is really good managing everything and extremely precise and organized doing his work. So, I can’t complain. I help him with what he needs and learn a lot indeed. So far, I think we are doing a great team.

In the next days we will go to the field to check our sampling sites from last year. So for more news keep reading the next blogs…

 

Nov 17/18, 2018: Arrival at the Princess Elisabeth Antarctica Station.

It is time to give you news… how our adventure continues… 1 am in the morning and we finally arrived to PEA (Princess Elisabeth Antarctica Station, the Belgian Station). What a great feeling! Alain Hubert and other members of the team are waiting for us. They welcome us very kindly and give us the first indications and rules about how everything works here. After a cup of warm tea, it is time to rest a little bit. 7:30 am we need to be back for our first official meeting and meet the rest of the crew. Tired and jetlagged or excited or with a combination of everything, we make our way to our bedroom. It is a blue container outside the station that will shelter us for the next 5 weeks. In case you are wondering, it is heated, of course! The morning of Saturday November 17th, after breakfast, Alain Hubert (the famous Belgian explorer and chief in charge of the Station) gave us a tour showing us the entire station, explaining in detail about the management and functionality of PEA. I must to say, it is incredible what they have built so far. It is a place with all the facilities you can imagine and a completely zero emission station is the goal for the next coming years. Water Engineers, Electricians, plumbers, constructors, technicians, etc… are part of the crew responsible every day of the running of PEA but we all have duties that help for the right development. I feel very delighted to be part of this, at least this year. The day is almost over and everybody is excited because Sunday is day off! So now it is time to enjoy dinner and some beers and/or wine all together.
It is Sunday already and we cannot wait to go outside and explore the surroundings of PEA a little bit. Always following the field guides, they take us for a tour to the “wind scoop” of the Utsteinen mountains. We are six and for me is the first time walking in the ice using crampons. Landscape is incredible beautiful. Shapes I’ve never seen before and also sounds I’ve never heard or experienced. My eyes are just amazed for what I am seeing. I am so lucky to be here, that’s all I can think of. So, in resume, it was a wonderful experience but I couldn’t have done it without help. So, thank you Daniel (one of the field guides)! For someone without experience like me, support is very important.
The next two days will be training days for us. This means medical, GPS, skidoo driving, crevasse safety, rescue, etc. So if you are interested to see how this goes, more stories later on….

Tefi & Preben.

Nov 16 2018: The Beauty of the indescribable -Antarctica Day 1.

The CHASE expedition Nov.-Dec. 2018 –
The adventure of Stefania Gili (ULB- Labo. G-Time) and Preben Van Overmeiren (UGent – Department of Green Chemistry and Technology)

After several months of preparation, finally the time has come. Mixing of feelings to hear “Ladies and Gentlemen, please it’s time to get ready with your warm clothes. We’ll be landing shortly…” Minutes later after a warm clapping for the genius pilot who landed us safe, the steward said “Welcome everybody to Novo Air Base, Antarctica, Local Time is 1:00 PM.” The Boeing 757 opens its door and here we are, the BELARE /CHASE team has completed the first leg of this trip to Princess Elisabeth Station. Oh yeah ! Happy faces, at least for the ones who are the first time here! Beautiful weather today! We couldn’t ask for more to be honest. While part of the team is checking that our cargo has arrived complete and safe, the rest is taken to a “container house” to wait until the departure of our next flight, which is at 9:00 PM local time. After a great welcoming at Novo, especially for me because the Argentinean team (16 people) gave me some goodies to bring with me! That really made my day even more exciting because it was a nice surprise I was not expecting. Seated now in a smaller plane, we are ready to   flight to put new home for the next 5-6 weeks. The feeling is just amazing. After 1 hr and 45 minutes we finally got the the view of the PEA !!! Unbelievable, we are here !

If you want to know what is next … read the next story …
PS: I hope you enjoy the pics as much I do …

Tefi & Preben.

[Free entrance] Belgium and Antarctica… Researchers’ views

Archives Antarctiques Belges – Belgische Antarctische Archieven (AABBAA – asbl) and APECS Belgium are proud to present a conference evening where researchers share their findings and experiences in Antarctica!

Belgium and Antarctica… Researchers’ views
21 March 2018 (Wednesday)
19:00
Campus Solbosch, ULB Building D Local DC2.223
Open to public and FREE of charge!

AABBAA is a non-profit organization which gathers archives on Belgian Antarctic expeditions. Please join us for this great initiative!

original announcement https://apecsbelgium.wordpress.com

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From B120 to B121: a team is born

The Belgica120 crew left Ushuaia on Feb the 25th, around 10 am, next stop Antarctica. After finalising the last details, going through the initial briefings and getting the Australis ready, we set sails out of the Beagle Channel, towards the Melchior Islands along the Antarctic Peninsula.
The initial timing was set to an initial 12 hours to get to Cape Horn, then 2.5 days to cross the Drake Passage to the Peninsula. Everything was going fine, we were getting familiar with the boat (and with sea sickness) and steaming at 8 knots towards the South. On the second day of navigation, something went wrong with the engine’s gearbox (there was a big “bang” and rumble, like a rolling bag of bolts), and we had to stop the engine, after approximately 1/3 of the distance. The Australis is a 50/50 boat: it is designed to steam using to propulsions modes: engine and sails. Without the engine, Australis cannot be manoeuvred precisely, and the general design of the boat (shape of the hull and sails) does not allow here to sail close to the wind.
After stopping the engine, Ben and Simon (the captain and first mate of Australis) started investigating the mechanics and tried to find a solution to fix the gearbox. Unfortunately, it was impossible: the part that snapped was a shaft inside the gearbox. Ben called me to the wheelhouse to inform me there was no way they could fix the problem at sea. Simon and Kari (our cook) were there as well. There was this dreadful moment of silence, as I realised we were in an actually delicate situation. We were well engaged in the Drake Passage, our engine was useless, and we could only rely on our sails to turn back to Ushuaia. At this moment, the wind was in the right direction. We swiftly decided to tack, set all sails and head north. At the same time we decided to inform all ships around us that we would probably need assistance in a reasonable delay. I informed the team about the situation, and that we would probably have to delay our attempt. There was a big disappointment of course, especially given the amount of effort that went into preparing this expedition, and the high hopes we all had… but there was not much more to do than accept the situation and work our way out of the Drake.
The other “detail” we were worried about was the weather: strong winds were announced to hit us in a couple of days.
Under sails, with the wind strong enough and in the right direction, Australis made an amazing job. She was actually sailing at 8 knots in 25 knots of wind. But we couldn’t get closer than 60 degrees in the wind. Thanks to her speed we beat the storm, which passed behind us: one problem less.
Meanwhile we managed to get in touch, by radio, with an Argentinian navy vessel, the Puerto Argentino, who confirmed they would give us a tow, as soon as they cached up with us (they were about 100 nm behind when we first contacted them). So the situation was more or less under control. A few sailboats passed us on our way to the North, always making contact to make sure we were alright. Our situation was never critical, nobody felt unsafe at any moment. On our way back, we had many contacts, including also with a Chilean Navy ship, the Sibbald. They offered to escort us up to the coastline. We didn’t really understand the purpose of that offer, as we were in need of a tow, before the situation became actually dangerous.
The wind was now coming from the North, and we were making extremely slow progress. If we didn’t get a tow, it would take us days to get back. The more time we spend at sea, the higher the chances we get hit by bad weather.
At this point we were about 30 nm East of Cape Horn. The Puerto Argentino had catched up with us, in the morning of the 28th of February. After some contacts with the vessel to coordinate the towing manoeuvre, which is always risky, the navy ship sent us a towing cable, which we successfully attached to the bollard. This was a great relief for me, until about 3’ later, the captain called us on the radio to inform us he had received the order not to tow us and let go the cable. At first I thought I was dreaming alive. I couldn’t believe this nonsense. Why would they let us go after risking a manoeuvre to start the tow, knowing we could never make our way back to safety? Two extremely tense, nerve-wearing hours started: we were trying to save time, hoping we would at least be towed over a reasonable distance, but the navy ship was just staying in place, probably on purpose. Ben was trying to call everyone he could to unlock the situation, so that the captain would get the authorisation to tow us. We also tried to call our networks in the area to get things moving. But the captain of the Puerto Argentino kept insisting on the radio that we should let go the tow cable. He sounded more and more nervous as the Chilean Navy vessel was approaching. Our nerves were worn, and we finally let go the cable, despite the fact that we didn’t get the point. As the Puerto Argentino left us behind, we got in touch with the Sibbald, which was now very close, and which again offered to escort us. We didn’t set the sails, and let ourselves drift to make a clear point that we couldn’t manoeuvre to safety. After about 10 minutes, they contacted us on the radio and offered a tow. Instead of being relieved, I was still wondering what kind of last minute trick would happen to us. But everything went well apart that the Sibbald was going to let us go somewhere in the Beagle Channel, as we were getting close to the Argentinian border.
Ben arranged a pickup by a tugboat from Ushuaia, and after a few more hours of towing we were safely brought back to our dock.
During the whole process, we had some time to think about how we could turn this into something positive. Even if its been a huge disappointment (and I think its safe to say especially for Ben and myself), the Belgica120 expedition was a first attempt. Its an expedition, and its Antarctica. We’ve learnt a lot during these few days, about the Australis, about ourselves and about our future project. Thanks to the B120 team keeping very calm and positive, and moreover to the Australis crew for handling the situation with amazing skill, we got ourselves out of a situation which could have become critical.
We now have a year to prepare for our next attempt, which of course will go by the name of Belgica121… stay tuned, photos will follow.
Bruno

Belgica120-Arrival

After two days of traveling we have finally arrived in Ushuaia. Ben (our skipper) picked us up from the airport. Even though we were tired and exhausted, we went directly to the harbour and had a first look at the Australis, the ship we are going to call home for the next few weeks. Stowing away all our equipment and luggage was another challenge, however now is everything is packed and ready. Customs clearence tomorrow … planned departure on Sunday the 25th!!

 

Belgica120-Departure

Time is a relative thing. We left Belgium only 4 days ago – feels much longer with all that happened. Now, it accelerates again, throttle down and off: last dinner, shower, night, and right now breakfast on land. We got a security briefing yesterday already. Departure within the next hour. Approx. 8h until Cape Horn and then enter the Drake Passage. Drake lake or Drake shake? Either way, here we go!

Security Briefing