[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

Wednesday 21st February

For this last day on the field, we decided to look further west from the station, an area we haven’t sampled yet. Smalegga Mountain proved to be a suitable location, as well as a significant point of interest, as it was at the foot of this mountain that the 1959 Belgian Antarctic expedition left a sledge. Once at the top of the first crest from the ski-doo track, we noticed a glacially eroded surface covered with fine-grained material, which is an ideal sampling site for micrometeorites. After taking the sample back to the laboratory of the station, we quickly found our first cosmic spherule of the day. However, it also turned out to be our last micrometeorite in this sample. Once back in Brussels, we will have more time and better equipment to determine the quality of this sample.

Now we keep busy preparing our trip back to Belgium, packing and labelling all the samples we have collected on the field. A tedious task, but an important one nonetheless.

After 450 km on the skidoo and 105 kg of sampled sediment, our Antarctic adventure has come to an end. As they say in French: “ce n’est qu’un au revoir!”.

Steven and Matthias

map-samples4

Belgica120-Buenos Peres

We arrived safely in Buenos Aires. After 14h of flight, the warmth and humidity of northern Argentina is giving us a brief respite before it is getting colder again. Having one day to our next flight (to Ushuaia), we are using the time to explore the city, having brief science meetings for some of us (Charlène) and generally stacking up on sun and warmth.

Belgica120-Checked in!

Some gear is already in Ushuaia, the remaining stuff is now ready for our flight from Paris. We checked it in already at the train station in Brussels. That was a good call – we did have a lot of extra bags and weight, especially due to all the diving equipment. My little bag has now a heavy lead belt on top. Hope nothing gets crushed… Next stop Buenos Aires!

February 20th 2018

On Tuesday, we visited Wideroefjellet, where we know micrometeorites are abundant based on an earlier expedition in 2012. To reach a ridge near the highest summit of the Sør Rondane Mts., of course we need to make a small effort and climb this monster using crampons, ice picks and snow poles. We reach the ridge in 2.5 hours. The weather is good, yet the wind-chill factor goes down to -30˚C near the sampling site. Exhausted (except for robot Raphael!), we start our sampling. Even in only 5 years, this site has changed with significantly more snow accumulation. The soil and underlying rock are frozen, and we need to use the chisel and hammer to collect fine-grained sediment. Matthias points out that the other side of the valley may also be a good site to sample. Reluctantly, as it’s getting late and temperatures are starting to go down, we move in that direction to discover that this is indeed a perfect location! With backpacks full of sediment, we move down to the skidoo parking spot in 1h15m and return to the station after a skidoo ride of 1h. No need to say that again the collected samples appear full of micrometeorites using the microscope at the station?

What are we going to do with all these samples in the range of 70 kg? Well, pick out all the micrometeorites of course! Because the larger a micrometeorite collection is, the more chances of finding extremely rare material. Just think of unmelted micrometeorites, rare achondritic micrometeorites, airblast particles…? Who knows what secrets this now very large collection holds?

 

map-samples-all-1 

February 18th and 19th

On the fifth day of the expedition, the target was a supraglacial moraine located near Walnumfjellet, which is the most micrometeorite rich site we have found so far. Previous moraine sampling has proved to be reasonably successful, so aiming for this moraine in particular made sense. Much to the surprise of the team members, what we found upon arrival to the site was a line of sparse rocks partially enclosed in ice, with no fine-grained material to be found. Steven and Raphael decided to take this opportunity to sample ice along the blue ice field the moraine was running along, while Matthias decided to explore the moraine further to find a micrometeorite sampling site. After walking along most of the moraine, only one suitable sampling site was found, which consisted of a centimeter-thick layer of icy fine-grained material. Upon returning to Princess Elisabeth Station, we stopped on the ridge of the Svindlandfjellet to sample more fine-grained material. Upon examination of the moraine in the laboratory, it turns out that this unique sample in surprisingly rich in micrometeorites! The sixth day of the expedition was a very demanding one, as it involved sampling ice along a steep glacier close to Wideroefjellet. But it was worth the effort, as these 22 samples will allow a better characterization of the ice dynamics in the area.

map-samples3

Belgica120-Gear

Equipment on the pier

The countdown’s ticking very fast… only two days until departure in Brussels. In the meantime our scientific equipment has already arrived and was taken aboard. Hooray! Sending oftentimes valuable, sometimes unique (think ROV, special diving & fishing devices, …) gear half way round the world and back can be challenging, to say the least. A lot of administration and paperwork (and patience) is needed to get everything on track. Luckily our chief has been very persistent and eventually managed to master the bureaucracy jungle attached to the task. So, now it’s there and we have some graphic proof, which is great… but, hey, wait what is that?! What happened to our box (very solid and sturdy aluminum box that is)?

That’s not how it’s supposed to look

Things rarely go as planned with end of the world exploration. And so our first surprise is an equipment box already punched in before it even got on board. We’re still lucky though. Nothing absolutely crucial seems to be in that box and also while the box itself has definitely changed shape, the content seems largely intact. Phew. Back in Europe our next immediate challenge is to not overload our bags and get everything checked in.

Henrik.

Everything on deck