The view from inside a Crevasse - © International Polar Foundation

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The World’s Most Southerly Anthill

The International Polar Foundation's Alain Hubert reports from a hive of activity, as the current science season kicks off at the world's first zero emission polar research station, Princess Elisabeth Antarctica.

Things are going pretty well; it is like an anthill at Princess Elisabeth Antarctica – we’re working from six in the morning until midnight every single day.

Let’s look back to the arrival of the first pack of scientists last Thursday and Friday: two planes and almost three tons of scientific equipment, along with some of the usual fresh food that arrives when plane comes in.

You can’t imagine how much people appreciate it when they can, for a few days, enjoy a fresh orange juice at breakfast, or an apple or pineapple for dessert at dinnertime.

But back to work: we had first to unload more than 400kg of cargo from the planes and bring everything inside the station.

With the new eight scientists here, equipment was being unpacked everywhere and as the weather is good, the front of the station quickly became a kind of market of parts and machines, with lots of people around going in every direction and asking our team to help - adapting tools, providing pieces of equipment, building boxes, plates, welding, etc.

At the same time, the rest of the technical team were busy finalising the construction of the new accommodation unit, constructed by sticking together two containers with a huge connecting platform covered by a strong sheet. One container is the living place, with a kitchen and office desk and the other is a power container with a toilet and a bathroom.

On Saturday, we had first a meeting with the full group to organize the field campaign, which should start by the end of the next week. Travelling to the coast on Derwael ice rise, 254km away from the station is not a simple trip; it is a real expedition, requiring two tractors and six containers and big sledges.

We will come back later to this expedition: there are basically three expeditions sharing logistics within one big expedition, including the recent recipient of the InBev-Baillet Latour Antarctica Fellowship, Reinhard Drews, and IceCon - Constraining Ice Mass Change in Antarctica.

All of the scientists have to test their equipment here before departure for the coast, to make sure that everything is working. As usual there are always some improvements or last minute problems occurring which have to be solved.

And that’s why our polyvalent technical team is here: to help scientists find the best way to adjust their equipment and make final tests. And it will take all week just to be ready to leave.

On Sunday night the Germans team from the Alfred Wegener Institute (AWI) arrived with their plane, Polar6, to do a geomagnetic survey in the vicinity of the station.

With the three Canadian pilots, it will add eight people – that means 30 people at Princess Elisabeth Antarctica. For the cook, Max, there is a big difference going from 12 to 30 people in just three days but he has lots of idea to make all these people happy… that’s the secret in Antarctica if you want people working and enjoying life around here.

On Thursday we had heavy winds, up to 56 km/h, and our first strong snow drift. This basically meant 24 h without going outside, which caused a significant accumulation of snow on the roof on the north side next to the satellite dish.

We were supposed to leave tomorrow at three in the morning but a last and unexpected mechanical problem has forced us to leave instead at eight and drive down to the coast for 24 nonstop. This means we will arrive on the morning of the third of December.

Meanwhile the rest of the team members, like Walter will take care of the AWI team and refuel the plane, or repairing the one Lehman big sledge by welding a new beam (an ideal work for Gregory, a professional welding man), and working on station’s systems with Erik and Karel.

Or, they will start breaking the rock just behind the station’s tower to be so that they can rebuild and make permanent the entrance hall which is currently sinking following the small but significant movement of the ice towards a slope of about 45°.

Jacques, le Québécois, will continue to be everywhere in the same time going from one job to another and directing the works while we are at the coast.

The doctor will take leadership of the station and in a few days will welcome the next group, and a group of Russian people who will stop by to refuel their plane next Sunday. Jacob is on his side quite busy with the starting of the space-age water treatment system and will very soon start working with Craig to prepare the station’s tower for the installation of a system to compact the slush coming out of the bioreactor in order to drastically reduce residue (more about this to come in later blogs).

Lots of work…in fact it never stops, but we like it and the atmosphere in the Princess Elisabeth Antarctic team is definitely – as I mentioned, like one endless anthill.

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Author: Alain Hubert

Picture: The view from inside a Crevasse - © International Polar Foundation