Joachim Jakobs at Duboisbreen - © International Polar Foundation - Nighat Amin

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Science Heads to the Field

Christmas at Utsteinen was a little surreal. Work continued at the same frenetic pace as all the containers had to be unloaded from the ship. Everyone pitched in, from technicians to scientists, all unpacking crates and boxes to stock our provisions. We unpacked our Danish Christmas tree, which seemed out of place against the strange, treeless landscape.

Meanwhile, David was busy cooking up an amazing stuffed turkey with morel mushrooms and asparagus in a cream sauce. Towards evening, once family Skype sessions and phone calls had finished, we all gathered together to celebrate.

On a brilliantly sunny, cloudless and windless Boxing Day (26 December), Alain, Erik, Wim and I accompanied two German geologists (Joachim Jakobs and Detlef Damaske; Bundesanstalt für Geowissenschaften und Rohstoffe) to visit the Duboisbreen, where they are looking for magnetic signatures called susceptibilities in the rocks to study plate tectonics. They are hoping to have a better idea of how the Kalahari Craton (one of the oldest landmasses on the planet, which currently makes up most of southern Africa) may have been juxtaposed with East Antarctica and other landmasses over the past billion years or so, as supercontinents formed and broke apart. Land around Utsteinen is located on the edge of what was once part of the Kalahari Craton 1.1 billion years ago, which makes it an interesting neighbourhood to be in – geologically speaking.

In the meantime, Zorigto has been to Teltet nunatak (71°59’S, 23°43’E, Sør Rondane Mountains) with Jacques Richon, our doctor and mountain rescue specialist. There is an unusual amount of cyanobacterial activity at Teltet. Cyanobacteria (blue-green algae) are prokaryotes; these are unicellular organisms lacking a true cell nucleus, which eukaryotic (like animal & plant) cells have. They are a very old form of life, and are among the few organisms that successfully survive in the Antarctic. Zorigto has just written a thought-provoking paper on a literature review he has done about the observed relationship between cyanobacteria and eukaryotic primitive organisms competing in the same niches.

Olivier Francis is overjoyed that he has managed to get his best readings this year from the absolute gravimeter he has installed at the northern shelter. A gravimeter measures the local gravimetrical field of the Earth. The laser in the box managed to survive its eventful trip to Antarctica, and is busy measuring the acceleration of a falling weight. Galileo would have been bemused by this.

Back at the station, we are also working hard installing new backup generators. The cable is as thick as a man’s arm and weighs 800kg. The workers remain upbeat in the face of the challenge of threading these cables from the gensets to the MDB (main distribution board) via the cable trays. The Solus heat exchangers for the snow melter have also arrived. Bernard and Paul will upgrade that system in the coming days.

Alain, René and Jacques have also completed reconnaissance on the route to the plateau to mark the way that the Prinoths must take to deliver the meteorite searchers to their camp at 2750m. In the Antarctic, the prevailing low air pressure exaggerates the effect of altitude, so that 2750m feels more like 3500m. Apparently, conditions are quite extreme, and we are beginning to prepare mentally for the change in gear.

Author: IPF

Picture: Joachim Jakobs at Duboisbreen - © International Polar Foundation - Nighat Amin

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