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)?
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.
The weather was exceptionally good today, so we decided to take a long ski-doo trip to Walnumfjellet, a group of small mountains located 70 km from Princess Elisabeth Station. For this very technical trip, amongst glaciers leading to the high plateau, we were lucky to have Alain Hubert as our guide, next to Raphael. After a long ride, we eventually reached our destination, 2400 m above sea level and with wind-chill effects reaching -28°C. We quickly noticed glacially eroded summits popping out of the ice, which looked like ideal sampling sites. The cold temperature motivated us to quickly get to work, sampling a very promising looking fine-grained detritus. Promising because the surfaces of these flat summits have been stable and potentially exposed to the sky for approximately 2 million years, during which we surmise that they have been accumulating cosmic dust falling from the heaven. After sampling 5 different sites, we made our way back to the station, through steep glaciers and long stretches of icy flatland. Once back, we couldn’t hold our excitement and started looking through one of the sample. Much to our amazement, we found more than ten micrometeorites in less than 15 minutes, making this sample exceptionally rich. We can finally say that braving the cold and lack of oxygen was a small price to pay for such an exceptional find and day.
As the weather is on our side, the quest for the micrometeorites continues. On Thursday, we focus on a ridge on the Vengen Mountains. This ridge is on the southeast open to the plateau, the inner, higher part of the continent – composed purely of ice and snow, and from our previous campaign in 2013 we know these are the ideal locations to look for micrometeorites! The winds here are strong (~9 km/h), with wind-chill effects of -18˚C, and the exposed glacier shows beautiful structures. Once back at the station, with nothing more than a toothpick and an optical microscope, without washing or sieving the extracted sediment, 5 micrometeorites were extracted from one of the three samples in less than half an hour. This is highly promising!
Now that we know where to look, today (Friday the 16th) we decided to visit a moraine in the Gunnestadbreen that is exposed to the SE winds from the plateau (cf. map below). Even on this beautiful, sunshiny day, the 15 km/h winds never stop, leading to wind-chill effects of -18˚C. We don’t bother to take off the skidoo suites and go straight to work. Four different locations at the different ends of this moraine are sampled. Once back at the station, one of the deposits yields 3 very nice micrometeorites in no time. This brings the grand total to 11. Let’s keep on going at it!
With only 4 days to departure for Argentina and just a week for the planned departure from Ushuaia, things are getting serious. For most greater endeavours I undertake, I tend to start dreaming about it in advance. Same for this expedition; at least for that matter. My dream, as most dreams go, was a bit incoherent, but I do clearly remember being on a sailing ship, which unsurprisingly resembled the ‘Australis’ quite a bit. I was sitting on deck just before the mast and tried to keep my mind off these insanely high waves, which towered over our ship like mountains. In my dream I wasn’t particularity worried … but neither was I particularly calm.
So naturally, as I woke up, the first thing was to check the weather forecast for the Drake: for the next 3 days winds between 9 to 17 m/s, waves between 3 and 7 meters and temperatures around 4°C. Hopefully we will be lucky with the weather and we can proceed with our planned departure from Ushuaia to the Antarctic Peninsula on the 24th.
The duffel bags are (nearly) packed and ready, waiting at the entry of my flat for departure. Last minute preparations are still to be completed. The lion’s share of our (scientific) equipment has already been shipped months ago and is waiting for us in Ushuaia. However, there are always some last purchases to be made. Five days until departure: we will meet at the train station Brussel Zuid (Midi) and together take the train to Charles de Gaulle, Paris. From there we will board the plane to Buenos Aires. Ready for our low-emission expedition to the Antarctic Peninsula!
After a safe arrival in Antarctica, Matthias, Steven and field guide Raphael started searching for micrometeorites today. Our first goal was a glacial moraine next to the Vengen mountain, Sør Rondane, which is approximately 1 hour away from the Princess Elisabeth station using skidoos. We decided to sample glacial moraine because thousands of micrometeorites were previously successfully extracted from moraines located next to the Larkman Nunatak, Transantarctic Mountains. The nice weather allowed us to take our time to identify suitable sampling sites on the downwind side of this very large moraine. After spending about 3 hours sampling 5 sites, we made our way back towards the Princess Elisabeth station, where we quickly started looking for micrometeorites in our moraine samples. It didn’t take us long to find three cosmic spherules (i.e. melted micrometeorites) in two different samples! This first day of micrometeorite hunting is thus a success and motivates us to look at more glacial moraines and deposits near mountain summits in the area.
Today, our colleagues Steven Goderis (VUB) and Matthias Van Ginneken (ULB) are leaving Cape Town to Antarctica. If weather permitting (as usual in Antarctica), after a short stay at the Russian air base, they will arrive on the new airfield Perseus located ~60 km away from Princess Elizabeth station. Steven and Matthias will look for micrometeorites around the Belgian station. Micrometeorites are obviously meteorites, but less than 2 mm size (more info can be found in the attached file). Because of their small size, they contain information sometimes different and thus complementary compared to meteorites. The cold and dry climate of Antarctica is ideal for preserving those fragile stones from space. They will brush cracks in rocks to collect dust, a mixture of terrestrial and extraterrestrial material. Micrometeorites will be recovered later in the lab by magnetic separation and hand-picking under microscope.
On December 14, Jérôme and Sergei (the Colonel Doctor from the Russian boat) came to pick us up with a Jeep and after one day driving on the ice cap we were back at the station PEA. It was time to recover, to take a shower, to check the status of the active dust collectors (active pumps), and to go again on the field… The last time…
We were lucky with the weather and we could easily visit the top of the Teltet nunatak and look at the geology. Very interesting and beautiful (views of the Sor Rondane mountains, and the PEA station, from the Teltet’s summit).
Before leaving the campground and going back to the station for Christophe and I, TJ managed to hang all the drawings he had received from children on the containers. All those drawings are amazing and so beautiful. A nice picture with the band!!