Wooden beams for the new entrance hall - © International Polar Foundation

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Time Flies in Non-Stop Operations Mode

How fast time is passing, now that we’ve reached the season’s halfway mark at Princess Elisabeth Antarctica. The days have gone quickly because we’ve been busy – in between supporting multiple science projects, journeying to a previously undiscovered penguin colony, and aiding Sir Ranulph Fiennes and The Coldest Journey expedition on their arrival at the Antarctica coast, we’ve found time to completely rebuild a major part of the station’s structure.

Rebuilding the Entrance Hall on Flexible Foundations

While the main part of the station is perched on rock, Princess Elisabeth Antarctica's entrance hall is built directly on the icecap. Because the movement of the ice was causing pressure on the entrance hall, pulling it away from the ridge, action had to be taken to counter it. So, we decided to disassemble and rebuild the entrance hall: this time on flexible foundations, allowing it to self-adjust as the ice moves for at least the next 20 years.

Thanks to the heavy yet almost invisible groundwork done by the season’s first team of Gregory, Jacques, Olivier, we were able rapidly mount a new wooden structure for the entrance hall. This needs the involvement of most out of our team, with Karel and Erik released from their normal technical duties. They will need to start reinstalling the entire sunny and windy boy systems (inverters that convert the power coming from the solar panels and wind turbines, making it compatible with the station’s energy management systems), in order to reactivate the station’s renewable energy production.

Looking at the all recabling which would need to be done, they were a bit stressed when we dismantled everything. But with Jacques leading the team and Boby, Illir, Olivier and Pierre working hard a daily basis - with help from the rest of the team when necessary, Princess Elisabeth Antarctica has a new hall that can withstand the harsh weather for the next 25 years!

Meanwhile, Craig, Jacob and Jens carried out a huge project - installing the new slush system to compress the residual mud coming out of the bioreactor treatment of the grey and black water. One doesn’t have to forget that Princess Elisabeth Antarctica is the only station in Antarctica that has a full water retreatment loop for all water used … just like a spaceship. The main advantage of this new system is that, instead of having to deal with three to four tons of semi liquid waste at the end of the season, we only have to deal with 50 Kg of solid waste. Much more ecological and also economical to transport!

Maintenance work

In the meantime, because we have lots of field science campaigns to manage, we are carrying out maintenance work on our vehicles, sledges, mobile units and skidoos, which are becoming old and which need careful taking care of. That’s Kristof and Walter’s main job: to deal with all the maintenance and the unexpected technical issues that can happen in the middle of nowhere.

What may comes as a surprise that is that the budget for running Princess Elisabeth Antarctica is quite small, compared to other Antarctic stations. This creates opportunities; the station doesn’t cost as much to run, we have one of the best teams working on this continent, who never complain, even when working around the clock.

I want to thank all the guys for being so efficient, and for providing such a dynamic image of this station to visitors. And it goes without saying that we have the best cook in Antarctica, famous amongst the pilots who regularly flying across the continent from one station to another. David has been well-known for years in this small Antarctic world - his cooking delighted the recent official delegation from Germany and South Africa that arrived for a routine Antarctic Treaty inspection on the 18th and 19th of January.

Scientific Campaign on the Antarctic Plateau

Meanwhile, out in the field we have an international Belgian-Japanese expedition searching far and wide for meteorites. Surveying a territory on the plateau as the size Belgium, they had a very profitable first part of the season, finding about 360 meteorites that had arrived in Antarctica from outer space, and drifted north in the ice for millions of years.

On 14th of January we went to pick them up, and move their camp 24 km away towards another location where they would work for the rest of the month. We arrived in the middle of the night with a clear sky and a strong wind, but the weather turned bad. We had to work, move and reset a new camp in just over 24 hours without stopping because of, winds of more than 80 km/h and the temperature of minus 24°C - equivalent to almost -42°C. It was hard work to make their project on the ice possible, but we like it like that – and that’s why were are operating Princess Elisabeth Antarctica: supporting scientists in their work.

Helping out "The Coldest Journey" Expedition

After returning and making a stopover at the station, we headed for Crown bay to pick up a convoy of aircraft fuel for next year’s research, and to help unload the British-Commonwealth expedition, The Coldest Journey which aims to traverse the Antarctic continent during the winter. The expedition is heavily loaded, carrying around 100 tonnes of equipment, - this the only way polar explorer Ranulph Fiennes, who is leading the expedition, could get the necessary environmental permit from the UK government. The journey also provided us with a chance to explore the new configuration of the coastline at Crown bay – a change in the ice there will allow us to unload ships in mid-January from now on, after the sea ice has made its annual retreat. 

I’m now finally back at the station after almost two weeks of different field operations; Kristof is already en route to Crown Bay to change a final drive broken on one of our tractors and to take back some more fuel.

This is what we call a “non-stop operations mode” here down south which is why we don’t see the time passing.

Very soon, we will have to go and retrieve the scientists on the plateau, welcome the new team coming in with the next flight from Cape Town, remount the wind turbines, install the new platforms for photovoltaic solar panels, doing all maintenance of vehicles, head back towards crown bay for science, installing new weather stations, continuing supporting our various science programs and finally preparing for overwintering… the last five weeks of the season will even go faster than the rest.

Are we on another planet? Definitely, and we’re surely in another world too.

Author: Alain Hubert

Picture: Wooden beams for the new entrance hall - © International Polar Foundation

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