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Live from Antarctica: Monday February 23

The Neumayer weather forecaster had been sending us meteorological forecast maps which showed a perfectly circular cyclone with tightly drawn isobars indicating high wind speeds about to make landfall in our sector. We waited breathlessly for it to begin. To the North and the East, the clouds were massing, but nothing appeared to be happening. The visit of the Norwegian Environmental Inspection team went by without incident, their Twin Otter sitting on the airstrip for the whole two hours they spent touring the station. The weather forecast had made it impossible for them to stay the night, as had originally been foreseen. We had been looking forward to this visit with mixed feelings, as an inspection always seems to raise the spectre of "homework not done", but they were charming (as Jan Erling had assured us they would be) and effusive. We were sorry to see them leave.

The next day, we waited restlessly to see when the Lidia would be coming to take away half the team. Again with mixed feelings. Each one has become so much part of the whole intense experience over the past months that it was a wrench to see them pack and load their things on the sledge.

By afternoon, there was still no time set for the Lidia to arrive, and the sky was looking increasingly menacing to the South East. The massed clouds were beginning to pour over the distant mountains like an invading army. The small tents were being taken down, as was the office tent. The move to the station went into full swing as preparations to meet the storm continued.

Suddenly things began to happen all at once. An e-mail comes through from Novo Runway. Lidia is airborne, and will be with us shortly. The machine moves into gear and everyone starts collecting their bags, cameras, and i-pods in preparation. Irina is upset as she wants to experience her first Antarctic storm. Many feel that they are not ready to leave yet. Psychologically speaking, that is. There is still unfinished business here. There are still technical issues and personal issues to be resolved. We feel glum, and restless.

Outside, the clouds are streaming towards us. I inform Novo that we will need flares to enable the landing as visibility is very poor, and then head out to the skyway early to make sure that I am in position to give the landing conditions, and to place the flares before the plane arrives. By the time I get half way down the strip the storm has caught up with me and visibility has dropped to zero. I frantically call Novo to contact Lidia and abort the flight. And then I hear John, the pilot of the Lidia over the radio. They are 20 km away.

I explain the situation but, since they are close, they decide to fly over just to see if anything is possible. Rapidly they take their decision. "Sorry guys, we're turning around. You'll hear us circle over you". Later, I hear from John that they just made it to Novo ahead of the storm. They had barely secured the planes before it hit. "Time to get off the continent", he said, with a wry smile.
The flight is off but the question now is how do we return to the station? Alain and Pierre Dumont have come down with the Prinoth to see what is going on. Illir and Nathalie have also joined me at the airstrip. We decide to drive behind the Prinoth back to the station (it has high mounted lights which can help make out the markers along the route). As we pass the Prawn Nunatak, shadowy shapes emerge out of the driving snow. More people come to see their friends off. We motion towards them to join us, and the convoy heads off back to Base Camp. I have forgotten to take my goggles and by the time we make it back my eyelashes have frozen together and my skin feels like I have had a session with a sandblaster.

There are people in the Mess Tent. We collect everyone and hurriedly secure covers on the skidoos because it is impossible to drive them up with zero visibility, and then we follow the rope back to the station.

Inside, it is almost festive. The ones who were to leave have the air of having been reprieved, and we watch the storm through the station windows in a festive air, full of wonder and awe at the force of the storm as it bears down on us, still audible through the thick walls of the station. Snow streams over the ridge at a frightening speed, over a hundred and twenty kilometres per hour. We measure the progress of the storm by how many wind turbines remain visible through the windows on the North side. It is our first night in the station. David has taken possession of the kitchen and feeds the masses with warm and comforting food as we marvel at the storm, laugh, talk and try to find a bunk for the night.

The storm continues throughout the next day. Impossible to imagine that there is so much snow, so much wind. Novo, too, is being hammered. People are stranded at Sanae, Troll and Neumayer. The Ilyushin is grounded and the flight delayed until it passes. Pierre, who is a retired pilot, and Oli G want copies of the met forecasts showing the perfect cyclone. Everyone is busy working in the atelier, the kitchen, the technical core and the computer room. Even the wind turbines are producing more energy than we can use. Sven and Rafael, (still with us thanks to the storm) resolve a technical issue with the grid and the generator. We toast to the storm for bringing us this good fortune.

Finally, on Sunday, the sky begins to clear. Irina and I make several sorties out to read the automatic weather station data. Novo requests updates every hour. They have to clear snow from the runway before any flight can take place. The storm has not cleared yet for them. The whole day is spent clearing snow drifts in front of the station, taking down the rest of the tents and digging out skidoos. I ferry up baggage from the tents to the station on the sledge then get busy with more weather observations and more calls to Novo.

Alex looks morose but cheers up when we go to see if the storm has damaged his magnetometer. Everything is fine. He takes a couple of pictures, wishes it well and we head back. Irina takes down the ceilometer which has swallowed a bit of snow.

Pierre, Oli D and I drive the Prinoth and two blue tanks down to the lake to pump up more water for the station tanks which are almost dry. We have to go through more than a metre of ice with a chain saw to get to the water.

For some, it is too fine to stay inside and wait. Dries, with the most cherubic smile ever seen, makes a snow angel for me as he waits to leave.

The satellite communication has been acting up and messages are slow and painful to process. Finally, towards the evening, we receive a time for Lidia's arrival. We go through the same routine, baggage on the Lehman's, VHF radio and air band radio. The Iridium bulges in my pockets and I race down to the airstrip as soon as contact is established.

This time, all goes according to plan. I race back to the station in the oncoming darkness to wave to the Lidia as she circles overhead so that "the Belgians" can say goodbye to the station. Now that the noise and goodbyes are done, we are alone again in Antarctica, with the die-hards who will shut down this station over the next ten days. There is little conversation at dinner.

Nighat Amin

Author: IPF

Picture: Roof-top solar pannels - © International Polar Foundation

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