Monday, December 22, 2008

Last days on ice and the storm that wasn’t

Friday 19 December 2008

Beautiful, the ascent of Utsteinen nunatak after dinner last night. No wind, clear skies and a panoramic view that stretches for hundreds of kilometres. And a neat view of the station, actually.

For days now, the radar team is working on data analysis, getting the GPS and radar data together. Kenny is processing the radar data, doing the necessary filtering etc. As we mentioned before in the blog, the collected field that the data was promising. However, now that we completed the analysis it is clear that we have more than decent data (and this collected only during a couple of days). With the radar you emit an electromagnetic signal from the surface through the ice. This signal will reflect when reaching the bedrock on which the ice rest, or when it hits water (like the ocean). So, we can use the radargrams to detect the underbelly of the ice sheet, or whether the ice floats or not. So we can easily detect grounding lines, where the ice starts to get into contact with the ocean. Moreover, from the GPS data is also possible to detect the hinge line, the line from where tidal motion influences the ice. But, more interesting, it also shows isochrones within the ice as the signal is influenced by dust etc. And these are quite interesting to study as they may tell us about the present and past accumulation rates (how much snow actually falls on the surface), ice flow and ice flow changes. Moreover, we can use these lines to improve ice sheet models, because the internal layers are very good markers. Especially the area around the grounding line is a challenge, because the ice that by motion crosses this line is ‘added’ to the ocean volume and thus raises the sea level. Understanding the dynamics of grounding lines is a thus an important part of the interaction between the ice sheet and climate.

But, back to the shear reality of everyday station life. A storm was announced, but then again it never came. Well, it was announced, but not by the forecasting crew of Neumeyer. I don’t mind that information can be interpreted or maybe ‘misused’, but if afterwards people start to say that the meteorological forecasting is not correct, then I start to feel itchy. Anyway, we all enjoyed that anti-storm with clear skies, superb visibility and lack of wind. Summer, finally after all we had endured before. A second supply of new people arrived today on base, which means that tomorrow, we pull out. The BELISSSIMA adventure is almost over, but not merely the end of ULBonIce. We still have our bloguette around. We’ll put posts some pictures on the blog, from the moment we are back in civilisation.


Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Prinotherapy and busymania

Biological evolution is renowned to have occurred in a somewhat funny manner in Antarctica. Solitary birds, fatty seals and ugly fishes can testify for that. But Antarctic evolution has recently come up with an even more funny kind of fauna: goggles-and-big-shoe-wearing humans.

Strangely enough, some of those humans on the continent cannot stay away from their keypad and radargrams for more than 10 sec.; they're called radar geeks (or sometimes geophysicists).
Some others just spend their time making and looking after holes in the ice; they're called ice moles (or sometimes drillers).
Some others are on the look-out after cut fingers and defibrillators to test; they're called Health Angels (or optionally medical doctors).
Some others, yet, build stuffs wherever they can, like e.g. a scientific station on a bomb-proofed granite ridge in the middle of a remote ice field; they're called chain saw addicts (or eventually builders).
But those different types of people, as different and peculiar as they are, have something in common: they just can't do anything but doing their stuff. This is their passion, what fills their life, what keeps them busy.
They're busymaniacs.

As a matter a fact, a 'Prinoth' is a bully type of vehicle with caterpillar tracks used in snowy areas for various purposes, like e.g. flattening surfaces, digging holes, pulling containers, or housing crazy scientists. As
you might expect, these machines are very convenient at the station, and the latter would probably not even occupy a single pixel on the map without them.
But, as is the case with many machines (just ask Stanley Kubrick), a Prinoth can rapidly slip out of control from its user, whatever the quality of the manual. This is especially the case when a busymaniac has lost its principal occupation, that is, when there is nothing left to do. Then comes the mess - for there is no other treatment for the guy to get over his discomfort than the so-called 'Prinotherapy'. Driving full power across snow bumps and ice cracks on a Prinoth, in reverse if possible to be able to enjoy the alarm bell, becomes the only known way to date to relief the desperate soul. One of the very few counterparts, however, of the Prinotherapy being the dB level around the station during consultation hours, knowing that busymaniacs, for some reasons currently in study, never practice their medicine alone. If you have ever lived close by a Seven Eleven (USA) or a Delhaize (BEL) store and have experienced the 4:00AM nightly truck delivery, you might catch some glimpses of the intensity of the collective treatment. Anyway, this has the advantage, I have to concede, to provide you with some recollections of Big City life in case you would miss it. So, next time you feel like having a Saturday Night buzz in Antarctica, you now know what to do – just get your colleagues out of their favourite occupation. The choregraphy won’t be a long time coming.

Who said the Antarctic experience wasn't lively?


the next one in the waiting room ;-)

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Roof Garden

Does anyone want to walking in the garden...
Does anyone want to go dance upon the roof?

We had a bath today. But we did not stink. At least that is what we thought until we entered the brand new bathroom in the station. It is more than 15 degrees in there, you can undress without a problem, but man, you start to smell! Whenever the temperature is below zero, there is no problem; the wind probably takes it away. But at high temperatures things get even more dirty. We are cleansed now; not clean, but somehow acceptable. This means we can party. A couple of days ago we (René, the colonel from the paras, Denis and Frank) found out that they were on the same wavelength of music. Let's funk it! Al Jareau's Roof Garden made a hit in camp insofar that everyone was swinging naturally on it. Removing camp yesterday happened on the rhythms of funk. We managed – despite a white night and a cerebral white out for some of us – to close camp two hours ahead of schedule. And this was not an easy piece given the significant amount of equipment that was dispatched in the area, either for scientific or logistical purpose. When this was done, René granted us with amazing Boulettes à la Liégeoise, something that cost Frank 5 consecutive visits at the Utsteinen lavatories the day after. This says more about the freshness des boulettes than about René.

But we managed to get there. It took us 16 hours of travel over again a featureless plain of ice and sastrugis. Visibility wasn't always there, but with the help of Pinks Floyd The Dark Side of the Moon, we were capable of
finding our way across the galaxy back to the PES spaceship. 42 is the answer, man.

Bro's Dens and Frank

Sunday, December 14, 2008


Sunday 14th December

1 day to BELISSIMA's return, 4 days to the arrival of our new bunch (6 guys), 1 week to BELISSIMA's leaving to Belgium, 10 days to Christmas Eve which will be a milestone, for most of us will be at the coast by then to unload the ship, 2 and a half weeks to New Year, 63 days to the official opening of the station, 80 days to the return of the last of us. Time takes another dimension here. Not a linear transformation, rather an expansion on the micro-scale and a shrinking on the macro-scale. It's as if the present is the most important thing here, something very few of us are able to do back in Belgium. None of us is busy with what happened last week, very few of us worry about tomorrow (take the great mufti out of the equation here!), let alone next week. We live in the hic et nunc. Which is both a blessing and a curse. A blessing, because it must be the key to the amazing adaptability we all show in this extremely different environment. A curse, because it also blurs our clear vision of how exceptional the situation is.

Some of us are truly concerned about how easily we slide into a routine here, how rapidly perspective can vanish, and how we lose ourselves in the moment.

Hey, this IS going to become a metaphysical post after all! No worries, the guys will be back tomorrow.


Saturday night fever

Saturday 13th December

What does a do when routine kicks in? Cook a dessert! Today, a conspiracy of the cook and the doctor decided to combine the two major spirit lifters we have over here, namely sugar and booze, to come up with "crêpes flambées au Grand Marnier". Apart from my medical duty (which, and it's of course a good thing, is reduced to a minimum), the occasional back rubbing and hugging duty (hey, this is serious stuff, some people have pretty heavy moments here…), the Base Camp Managing Duty today involved airstrip maintenance. Meaning the airstrip had to be enlarged, prolonged, marked etc etc…At least, it ensured my tanning got a refresher. And since it was a close collaboration between the cook, the photographer and the doctor, you can imagine the local airport rose to international standards! All we're missing now is a decent lounge
and duty free.

BELISSIMA will be packing by now, if they manage to scrape their neurons back together. Apparently, the scientific success of this expedition was seriously celebrated yesterday, and this morning, the anonymous delegate reporting during the daily phone call sounded like he was still missing some body fluid…


Doing, doing, doing....done!

Friday 12th December

The end is near, for the data-collection albeit! News from the radar team: Frank and Kenny indeed ended their 100 km profile gridding, did additional GPS data-collection this morning and, I quote, collected "fucking great data". They might even have identified Raymond bumps, however, this needs to be confirmed. They also washed their hair. Yeah yeah, I know, this sounds too trivial to even consider reporting, but trust me: been there, done it, got the t-shirt, washing your hair in this environment is one of the major experiences of your stay!

As for the drill team, their reporter is far more concise, keeping telling me everything is fine. However, since they keep drilling and storing samples, I guess it's as good a summary as it gets.They are supposed to leave their respective camps the day after tomorrow, to be back here before the storm. Base camp is still what it used to be, and I have to admit I'm incredibly looking forward to their come-back, not only to enjoy their fascinating company again, but to be BCM off duty! I will give away with the greatest pleasure my electronic leash (radio and satellite phone), as well as happily surrender my weather reporting tasks.Can't wait J


Friday, December 12, 2008

Here comes the sun.

Thursday 11th December

And yes indeed, at last. It won't last. But today is a day to remember: the day the sun was shining! This morning saw a lot of activity in base camp: we had to tear these mountains down, which made the journey to the medical container feel like an expedition in itself. So for the whole morning, René (aka Crazy Frenchie) and yours faithful have been shovelling. Making the bathroom container, the laundry container, the toilets and so forth easily accessible again. And to
think it will be back from scratch in a couple of days…First Antarctic lesson: humility with regard to the product of our work. This is not our natural habitat, we're merely tolerated, so don't expect anything to make your life easy, and don't complain about it either.

As for the field: the drill team his happily drilling, and the radar team was buzzing with energy this morning. If the weather has stayed like that all day for them, they might very well have ended their 100km chase, and found the holy grail: the description of the internal layers of ice, the profile down to 700 m, and the morphology of the ice layers which do not follow the bedrock.


Thursday, December 11, 2008

Shortened news, and shortened stay

Wednesday 10th December

Today's news from the field: the drill team is happy: they got their samples of marine ice, Bryn got to stick his camera in every poked hole, and they even change drilling site, to broaden the sampling. The radar team has optimized the data-collection parameters, and is "gridding" their area, for the weather has slightly improved. Frank and Kenny claim to have written 4 papers during their forced confinement, which makes the return on investment from such expeditions quite interesting: from raw data to paper in 72 hrs.not bad!

Bad news today with regard to the weather: we're expecting a storm (a real one, not this tiny blizzard, white out, and 80 km/h wind we've been enjoying for the last days) as from the 16th, so the field teams have to get back by the 15th. Needless to say the news was not well received.
As for base camp, we are once again fed up with the weather.Not only the weather, but the endless snow shovelling, which needs to be done again, and again, and again.over and need a serious dose of philosophy to overcome the repetitivity and the seeming meaninglessness (knowing you will be starting all over in a couple of hours) of it : maybe this is the key to a metaphysical Antarctic experience?


Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Struggling with MSR stoves

Tuesday 9th December

Fresh from the field:

Kenny and I were dropped off by Alain and Kristof in the middle of nowhere. It isn't per se nowhere; it is a known spot characterised by 2 simple numbers: 70°35.645'S and 24°01.739E. I can add another figure as well: 285m above sea level. Isn't that great? You call it an imaginary point in a vast endless plain of snow. We call it home; our new home; the geophysicist's dome. A big dome tent 6m in diameter, 3 meters high, flanked by two smaller sleeping tents. The skidoo's parked outside on the imaginary driveway. "Hello darling, I am home!" Home it is.

We arrived a couple of days ago, got acquainted with the environment: white, white and more white. Every day we take the skidoo's out (if weather permits), drive them along other imaginary lines, record blimps and beeps with radar sounding equipment and continuous GPS. It isn't exactly the sound of silence. Driving at 8km per hour on a noisy skidoo, pulling a sled with a
noisy generator that drags as well yet another sled that makes a tantalizing buzz. The transmitter buzz: the heart of the system. Hour after hour we cross the vastness of the snowscape; buzz, blimp, beep; buzz, blimp, beep. Everyday the same ritual, breaking the silence with our electromagnetic wave train: the iron rooster. Now and then we get visitors: snow petrels, Wilson's storm petrels and the other day a group of Antarctic petrels. Curious about what we are doing. Curious about the geometric way in which we try to map the empty snow space. Our only guide is the GPS that helps us organizing the unknown in a mathematical way. From x to y, from lambda to phi. Buzz, blimp, beep.

This morning was a bit of chaos in our normal pattern of everyday life. The MSR stove didn't work anymore. We rely on it to have water, to cook to keep warm and to survive. When it stops working you realize how fragile we are. Cleaning didn't help, so I continue struggling with it. Fortunately, there is a backup. But no backup of the backup (you can't backup infinitely). Dirty hands and smelly fingers, but an essential part of life. Our life at our dome. Our home.


Monday, December 8, 2008

The big boss is back

Monday 8th December

Last night (or rather this morning), at 02.00 AM, Alain and his team came back from the coast. They're bringing back a fresh post written by someone else, for a change. However, considering the current priorities -like, building a station- nobody has taken the time yet to transmit the precious USB key to faithfully yours, who's rather impatient to read the fresh news, and see the pics J

Nothing tangible has changed, and yet base camp is different. There's a kind of "back to school" atmosphere. Guess why.

Last night, we had the greatest evening walk one can imagine: the weather had given us a miraculous recess: blue sky and cotton-like clouds, no winds, and magical light. Six of us thus decided to explore the windscoop by night, to start enjoying this permanent day we have. It was, once again, magical. Walking on ice, climbing snow walls, gliding the descending slopes, sliding
the ice from the frozen lakes. It's good to be reminded we're not only living in camp and building a base, but simply in one of the most exceptional places on Earth.

As soon as I get my hands on the memory stick, I'll pass on the news!



Sunday 7th December

No revolutionary news from the field today. Sunday is a day of rest here, which is the perfect day to tell you about my experiment, being after all about sleep!. I measure the very willing and collaborating participants for 48 hrs in a row. They wear an actigraph bracelet for this whole period, which monitors physical activity and body temperature. In the morning and the evening -as well as once for every subject every 2 hours a day-, saliva samples are taken, with the aim of determining cortisol and melatonine levels. These two hormones provide information about the circadian rhythms, which we expect to be disturbed under the influence of the constant daylight. Indeed, participants to expeditions in the polar summer often complain about the difficulty of sleeping a whole "night" in this constant day. One of the goals of our measurements is thus to check whether the most evident hypothesis -the lack of a "go-to-bed" signal due to the lack of
external night- is indeed underlying these subjective reports. Another goal is to verify if the level of physical activity is able to counteract this sleep disturbance. The reasoning here can sound quite trivial -the more you work out, the better you sleep-, yet represents the interaction between the two "steering" mechanisms of sleep. On one hand, the circadian process, which is an expression of our internal body clock -which tells you once a day to get to sleep-, and on the other hand, the sleep homeostasis process, which is basically the sleep pressure that builds up with the time awake, and is also influenced by the type of activity during this time awake. And
this is where it becomes interesting to measure the degree of physical activity, especially since we have a wide range represented here: the "builders" have a very intense physical activity, whereas base camp duties require a lot less energy. Data from last year's expedition showed that the intensity of the physical activity was indeed related to sleep efficiency.

So this year, we want to expand the data-set with the saliva samples, mood questionnaires (to investigate whether potential sleep disturbances might have an effect on people's subjective well-being), attention tests, and a real polysomnography: this would allow for a more detailed investigation of sleep (qualification of sleep stages rather than only a recording of sleep duration).
Well, once in a while, a whole serious post can't do no harm.


Sunday, December 7, 2008

How deep is deep enough?

Saturday 6th December

After 45 m deep drilling, the core drill thus gave up, due apparently to the electronic controls not very well bearing the interaction with seawater. The radar team might move to another location, or set the second drill in action: we'll keep you posted.

The radar team did well today, and escaped getting lost in the blizzard. Indeed, happily getting out after their day of being "snowed in", they went a mere 14 km in the field, when Kenny, following what would prove to be a life-saving (I thought we were missing a bit of drama here.) inspiration, issued the quote of the day: "we'd better get back to check the data". And soon after their come-back at camp, the blizzard came up and whited them out. As for the data check, the radar images were processed to get thermal layer profiles of the surveyed area. With the current data, this was possible for a depth of 350 m. The results allowed for the description of isochrones (the layers of ice dating back from the same period), which showed, after modelling of the data, to date back "only" a 1000 years. And this, of course, is not enough -ah, to strive, to seek, to find and not to yield, to put it in Lord Tennyson's words...-. So the current mission is to be able to modify the gain of the radar, to optimize the signal-to-noise ration, and be able to get data up (or rather down!) to 700 m deep. Again, we'll keep you posted.

As for base camp news, we enjoyed the visit of Sinterklaas! This was more than enough to give a festive colour to the day, especially because the presents included Antarctic made chocolate truffles, which ensured some severe finger-licking.

The otherwise quite virtual function of base camp manager took a very practical aspect today: there was a leak in the water tank from the washing container (aka bathroom). Now, this thing needed to be emptied, by the bucket. Tank capacity = 500 l, bucket capacity = 10 l. I have to confess I've experienced more thrilling afternoons.But hey, once this was done, the tank repaired and the bathroom cleaned, yours truly got her first driving lesson on the Prinoth. Prinoths are the tractor-like vehicles used to i) move stuff around ii) drive the convoys of sledges and iii) maintain a so-called structure in camp and on the "roads". One of the duties here is to manage the containers (waste, building stuff) and the equipment (spare sledges, which was what needed to be moved yesterday). And off we went, chasing at the mind-blowing speed of 10 km/hrs (which is actually the top speed of that thing). Nice!!!

So, if I can summarize my duties here: I answer the phone (BCM is responsible for contact with the field teams), I spend a lot of time in the kitchen (experimenting, helping the cook with the dishes, making social talk over cooking), I diagnose problems in our daily environment (and do whatever helping I can to the wise handyman who repairs it), and I drive trucks, with the sound system put up to maximum volume, singing to U2's Rattle and Hum while "chasing" over the ice.Tomorrow, I'll tell you a bit about my own experiment, before I start to feel like some unknown life form sucked my brains out!


Friday, December 5, 2008

And the core drill worked!

Thursday 4th December

Further news from BELISSIMA: the radar team and the drill team have officially split. No hard feelings though: Kenny and Frank have set camp on the grounding line, the dome, the….damn, forgot the word! Anyway, the part of ice cap, whereas the drill team remained, quite logically after all, on the drill site. For the radar work: they'll be "gridding" their area, to get detailed profiles. For the drill work: this morning calls told us that a) the drill works (halleluiah) and b) they've gotten to 3 m so far. Today will be the test to see whether the 6 m limit can be outreached.

They are lucky to have better weather than we do: serious wind has come up, and you thus notice the chill factor is no myth: whereas the temperature is approximately a very well bearable -12°C, the wind blowing freezes you off your feet. And the forecast shows nothing promising until Sunday. We're going to have "Sinterklaas" in the storm! Let's bring the ominous answer to whatever problem we face: a new dessert… And regarding desserts, allow me a very feminine sidestep here. Please, ladies, feel a bit of compassion for the writer: I'm losing weight quite rapidly since I got here, and whereas in every other circumstances, I would be more than happy to fit again in my skinny jeans, or that little black dress which has been hanging in the closet for so long, waiting for my size 6, (or 38, depending on the readership's background), here, I know it's not such a good idea to give away my thermal insulation. So, to keep up the fat layer, I HAVE to pitch up the calories intake… So tonight, I HAD to take a second serving of French fries, and I very bravely faced a second "crêpe normande" on top of the first one. Ah yes, that was today's inspiration: caramelized apples in butter, topped with "pâte à crêpes", and baked to
apple pancakes. Gee, this mission is really hard…


The deepest drillhole the drill had ever drilled

Friday 5th December

Lots of news from the field today! And lots of good news for all that matters :-) Firstly, let's start with the drill team's record breaking event: they drilled 30 meters deep yesterday. This means that not only does the drill work, it exceeds all expectations. Which means you can picture how happy Bryn, Denis and Jean-Louis are about it. Secondly, the radar team. They had a less successful day yesterday: white out all the time, they didn't really get out, let's forget about data
collection. However, considering how much ahead they were on the planning, this really doesn't matter. A bit of a contemplative day it thus was for Kenny and Frank, who, according to their summarized report over the phone, had both productive moments (paper writing and equation solving) and metaphysical experiences due to the surrounding of the "big white", the silence that swallows all sounds, and possibly more.

As for Alain, who thus went for the coastal reconnaissance of the arrival site for the boat, he gave extremely good news too: they moved from Breid Bay to Crown Bay. And at Crown Bay, they found the perfect natural shape for the unloading site: a soft slope, allowing for the easy mooring and unloading of the ship. So, they're coming back to base camp as we speak, with an additional stop at the BELISSIMA base camp.

And base camp, well, is still what it was. Although we have better weather today, and the difference is immediately noticeable in people's mood. Jokes over breakfast, and the ability to move from containers to the station to the tents without feeling like leaving for a life threatening adventure.


Wednesday, December 3, 2008

A walk in the park

Tuesday 2nd December

Summarised news from BELISSIMA today: all is well. I suspect the various relay stations kind of loose some information in the transmitting process, but hey, let's not be sorry about the lack of drama here. One anecdote came through from the team that got back: our guys are not excessively good at taking care of themselves, and tend to favour a monomaniac diet: first, eat all the chocolate, then, eat all the cereal bars, then eat all the cheese, then, "meal-jack" the mechanic who's been preparing a nice hot sauerkraut! I haven't verified the source, neither did
I cross-check with any other version, so just take this piece of information for what it is: plain ol' gossip!

Base camp was as usual apart from the two René's –current BCM and the photographer, aka Crazy Frenchie- getting ready to leave first thing tomorrow morning (around 05.00 AM, so that will be a pretty heavy waving out duty!). Since Crazy Frenchie is also a very experienced mountaineer, who knows the area around here pretty well, yours truly suggested a little field trip this afternoon (before I have to move with a radio, a satellite phone, and the overburdening weight of BCM responsibilities on my fragile shoulders).

And here I am back, eyes still full of ice cathedrals, gone quiet from taking the majestic beauty in. Honestly, I was starting to worry about my quite domestic adventures over here (all point taken if there's some brow frowning at this point). But this afternoon…I walked on ice for the first time, and apart from the scenery, crushing crystals with each footstep sent shivers down my spine, for there is nothing like hearing a myriad microclusters flowing over ice, sounding like a thousand delicate chimes… My my, I had a full two hours of pure poetry walking around the nunatak (which is basically the mountain, but in a fancy polar saying: actually, it's an inuit word meaning "the mountain above the ice", quite right thus…), passing through the windscoop, and getting back down along the ridge. The windscoop is at the other side of the nunatak and, as the name might give away, is a "scooped" form in snowy ice, created by wind turbulences along the nunatak's flank. The ice looks so pure and dense it reflects the blue from the sky, thus creating a surreal bluish shine on the pink granite, where couples of snow petrels nest. I took it all in, watching my eyes out, feeling the crushing ice under my studs, tasting tears blown by the wind crystallized on my cheeks and melting back on my lips…Still too woozy for sarcasm today, sorry folks!

Praise for the Crazy Frenchie: Merci René :-)


The drill site that was there all the time.

Wedenesday 3rd December

As from this morning, I 'm officially "base camp manager" ad interim. Which is nothing fun really: you got to get up at dawn (ha, dawn, I wish.when I'm in a lyrical mood again, I'll write you guys a piece about how I miss the stars) to send a local weather update to the central station for this part of the continent, every night you write a daily report about activities -nothing to quirky, no, a very formatted document called a SITREP -situation report- comprising the status of personnel, logistics, mission and so forth.And above all -that is the part I truly resent- you're running around with both a VHF receiver and a satellite mobile phone, an Iridium. Please, read mobile here as in begin-of-the-nineties-cellular: not exactly the thing that gets lost in your purse.(purse? purse??? gee, it's true, I used to carry a PURSE!). Hello??? Can we please get a bit of remoteness and isolation??? However, there's one huge advantage to those electronic-stand-by-duty: it allowed me to get a call from the BELISSIMA team at 09.00 AM this morning! So, here's the freshest (indeed!) news:

First, I have to apologize for some incorrect reporting: seems our guys are not camping on a grounding line, but on the edge of a rift, right above maritime ice. The drilling will start today (tadaaa!!!), since there was some very good radar data collected yesterday -after quite a lot of noisy rubbish apparently-, which Kenny described as "enough for a paper", to which Frank replied, of course, that two papers would be written. And after all that chasing tens of kilometers around base camp, they will start drilling 15 meters away from their tent. Again, there's a profound wisdom in this: stop running around to find what's right in front of you (told you the metaphysical would finally got a hold on me!). So, since the drill team will start the real thing today, the radar team will move to continue their survey further away, setting up an auxiliary camp on a grounding line this time. We'll keep you posted on how the core drill behaves (Does it go up??? Does it go up and down??? Does it go up and down and in circles??? Does it do it in the ice??? How Freudian.)!!!

Their morale is extremely high, they sounded like fun, and Denis did a very convincing impersonation of a penguin over the phone. The further social news tells us that this crevasseland" their practically living on, well, Bryn did not only put a feet into, but got in to the waistline. But, and again I quote: "we didn't want to worry you". The time constant of the decay of worrying with the duration passed since the worrisome event is something our modeller apparently considers quite short, otherwise this whole putting off the telling wouldn't really make sense.I should ask next time I see him!


Tuesday, December 2, 2008

News from the field

Monday 1st December

This morning, 09.00 AM, we had the first live contact with BELISSIMA, at last! And good news it was: they're having much better weather than we do (the wind is chasing through camp), blue sky and moderate wind. They're in the area of interest (interaction between continental ice and maritime ice), and camping right on a grounding line. Around camp, they also have some crevasses but, I quote, "nothing to worry about, you really have to be stupid to fall into one of those!". The drilling hasn't started yet (I know, the suspense from the core drill is hard to bear…), because they're still surveying the area with GPS and radar measurements. Apparently, the drill team is eager to start, whereas the radar team wants to make sure it's worth the effort before cutting through. Until now, they've thus been chasing around the base camp on skidoo's, apparently about 100 km (must've been more than expected, 'cause one of the requests for re-supply was skidoo fuel!), and they're considering putting up an auxiliary camp at approximately 30 km, because there would be an interesting measurement zone. As for the social talk, Bryn apparently very literally got cold feet: he got at some point through maritime ice. No harm done, and nothing to worry about, needs to be added immediately. The morale is high, and they still
seem to be having lots of fun :-)

Time for the now mandatory gastronomic account from base camp. I erased the memory of Maritime Mousse (come on, I do have some form of self-respect!) by producing a rich, creamy and Über-chocolatey chocolate cake for dessert last night… And, although I say so myself, there was an indecent proportion of finger-licking all over the mess tent! René, our Base Camp Manager who's leaving to join the Belissima team tomorrow morning, has saved one half of it, but I somehow doubt our scientists will get a taste…


Monday, December 1, 2008


Sunday 30th November

For the regulars among you, I'd like to quote a phrase from 6 days ago (24th, 2nd paragraph): "If you think that going to the Antarctic is an encounter with harsh and cold conditions, you are wrong".

Allow me to express some full size sarcasm here. Now we have a weather to write home about! Some things thus seem completely hermetic to change. The fact for example that nice weather is always during the week, whereas week-ends look drizzly, grey and cold. Well, replace drizzly and grey by blizzard and whiteout, and you'll have it. A day of rest it was (Sunday, after all…), apart from some die-hards working inside the station, and the base camp manager, who's never off duty of courseJ. See those bad weather days during ski holidays, where you might go and try to ski, but get back quite fast 'cause it's not much fun, and watch time goes by playing stupid games, napping or watching tv? Well, take away the tv, and that's how it felt!

Not much to tell regarding the progress of the BELISSIMA project: we've had only very few communication exchanges, and all we know is that they're on site, and doing well (which is, after all, the most important thing). So let's do the small-talk: the chef is riding a creative wave, making us benefit from the fact that we are en petit comité. Yesterday's dessert was a fresh made puff pastry filled with pears, surrounded by a lovely, dark, rich chocolate sauce, and tonight's supper will be canard à l'orange. Oops, just heard the horns blowing (which is how we're called to the mess tent)…Bon Appétit!

Saturday, November 29, 2008

No news is good news

Saturday 29th November

With regard to the title, I'm pretty sure it doesn't mean a thing in English, but it's a saying in French: "Pas de nouvelles, bonnes nouvelles". This makes quite clear that I didn't hear much from the BELISSIMA team yet. The expedition leader, Alain, contacted us (base camp) to confirm the journey had been fine, the weather ok, and that they had arrived at destination after a 17-hours drive (around 03.00 PM). Today, they will probably install the camp, so no big science breakthrough to expect.

So, let me tell you something about base camp. Today, the Japanese team of scientists left for their very own base camp (5 km away, quite a trip indeed!), which leaves us with 11! Again, we waved them out as if i) we had known each other for years and ii) we weren't to see them again for the coming 6 months, whereas neither is true! Apart from my psychophysiological experiment (the one on sleep and circadian rhythms), this could become a sociological study: what a little remoteness can do.

The overall atmosphere here has become much quieter, which is not only due to a quantitative, but also to a qualitative change I'm afraid. Guess who made the biggest difference in the average decibel level during meals?!?

No significant medical duty for me, no field-assisting to crazy glaciologists, approximately 1 hour work a day for data-collection. Ithought I would eventually be able to catch up with all my backlogged writing (strangely enough, the chef did not immediately take my offer to help out again with his desserts). But nope. Our base camp manager seems to worry about me getting bored, and has decided to appoint me as "assistant base camp manager"! This tells two things: I need to learn to look busy, and people have a tendency to appoint me to various jobs (e.g. field assistant, blogger, kitchen help and surely more to come!). I still wonder how I could tell him this is a big casting mistake, since I think scientists are better at bending the rules than making them, but hey, this is Antarctica, anything goes J and adaptation is the motto! Maybe I should find the managerial misstep that is to management what Maritime Mousse was to chocolate.


Friday, November 28, 2008

Going, going, going.gone!

Friday 28th November

At last, the weather allowed for the convoy to leave for the traverses. Apart from the BELISSIMA team and their guardian angel Jesko (driver, mechanic, paratrooper, ad interim medic, safety checker.just to let the significant others know the guys are in trustworthy handsJ), Alain is also off to the coast with two others, for a little reconnaissance work.

Thus off they were this morning, and sure enough, in the meantime the wind is back at full speed with a thick layer of clouds masking the horizon to the north: their journey will be no walk in the park! This is the first convoy to leave this year, and there was something strangely endearing about it. Apart from the busy bees already up at the station for the building works, most of us lingered around to wave them goodbye. There was quite some picture taking, hand shaking, last minute mailing, filming and hugging, and then we watched the convoy set off.

But now the BELISSIMA team is off to do what they eventually came for. Enough of versatile helping out (much appreciated by everyone), endless socializing and entertaining (idem): data-collection it is. Or at least, it will be after their 20 hours-or-so-journey in a container. If everything works out as planned (why does it feel like a complete delusion to write this sentence?!?), there will be daily contact with the field teams, at both 09.00 AM and 09.00 PM through the satellite phones. Some of these precious minutes will be spent feeding info for this blog -I do realize the suspense of "will the ice drill make it through the ice is quite a cliffhanger!-,
which I hope will indeed somehow work out. If not, I might have to let my creativity run wild, and considering the last results of that (Maritime Mousse.) I have a hunch this might not have been the original intent of my appointment as "invited redactor".


Grey, grey and grey

Thursday 27th November

Grey, grey and grey.

Our team has enjoyed wonderful scenery until yesterday early afternoon. It was colourful; blue (sky), brown (mountains), and white (snow). Unfortunately, the god of weather changed his mind and gave us boring monotonic scenery; today everything looks nearly grey. The sky is filled with clouds. Without direct sunshine, the snow is not so bright. Visibility is low so we can't see mountains nearby. Sometimes it is hard to define the horizon. We may miss seeing the occasional blue sky since it is windy and we tend to look down. Anyway, due to bad weather, we deferred our departure to our study site one day and we stay at the station today. We did both science (data analysis and paper writing) and helping others (bring 170 kg copper to an upper level in the station and carpentry) and eventually we are going to be ready for a wonderful dinner. Here, wine and/or beer is served as a part of dinner.

Apparently, there is little to report today, so I would like to introduce three pastes that I brought with me to the Antarctic. First and most importantly, I brought sunscreen. Due to my past experience in Antarctica, sunscreen is critical but is not used so much since I usually wear a
full-face mask to protect from the strong winds (I am a radar guy driving skidoo and pulling the radar system all day long). For the last couple of days, the weather has been fantastic and I have used sunscreen much more than I expected. I hope that I need to use all of the sunscreen that I
brought. Secondly, I brought Bag Balm, a skin lotion. According to the note on the can, Bag Balm is "the farmer's friend helping keep dairy cows from becoming chapped from the harsh Vermont environment". When I first joined the US Antarctic field programme for the 2003-4 field season, one of my colleagues told me on ice that one can is enough for the entire career since he has bought one can when he started Antarctic fieldwork (tens of years ago) and the can was still half full and he had only another decade until his retirement. I love Bag Balm much more than he does; after three Antarctic field seasons including this deployment, the can is already one
third empty... Well, early retirement is not such a bad idea.

Ok, the last one I would like to introduce is toothpaste. Boring? No. It is important to choose a right paste otherwise you need to squeeze the tube really hard every time you wish to brush your teeth. Usually we live in tents with no heating (or minimum heating with a mountain cooking stove) so almost everything gets frozen. My pocket is already full with sunscreen and rolls of adhesive tape (tape is the most useful item for Antarctic research but needed to keep warm otherwise it is rubbish). My toothpaste pick is "Aquafresh Extreme Clean Arctic Cool." I never got this toothpaste frozen even though all other team members' toothpastes froze and I just left mine in the tent without any special care. Do you know why I picked this toothpaste? Simply, it was on a pharmacy advertisement. I have a half dozen tubes of this paste at home (I bought a bundle to get a good deal); it looks enough for my entire Antarctic career.

Important Note: BELARE, BELISSIMA, ULB, and any other organizations do not officially endorse these products. Use at your own risk.

(Today's blogger: KM)

Thursday, November 27, 2008

The sound of wind (and the chocolate mousse that wasn't)

Wednesday 26th Nov

Today the 'ULB on Ice' team took two steps forward and one backwards, and finished the day with a dessert to remember: Dr N's Chocolate Mousse that wasn't (also known as Maritime Mousse - see below).

The two steps forward were, firstly, to discover and mend a broken connection in the barrel of the ice corer. Now the corer seems to be working, indoors at least. We are sure that, with the correct power, the corer is capable of going 'up' and 'down' and 'round in circles'. This breakthrough is not to be underestimated; it represents approaching infinite progress relative to previous experiences (down only; no up and no round in circles). Next time we hope to try it on ice - and you will be the first to hear how we get on via this blog... Secondly, more radar and Global Positioning System (GPS) data were collected from around Princess Elisabeth Station. We found that the bed of the ice sheet is in much the same position as it was yesterday (which is no great surprise), and that several stakes left in the ice for some years to measure ice speed have either been removed or fallen over all on their own (well, with some help from gravity). Perhaps
even more amazingly, those that haven't fallen over don't seem to have moved very far at all. However, Frank still plans to publish the results before Christmas.

The one step backwards was as a result of the weather getting steadily worse all day. This morning the wind was strong enough to extend fully the various national flags located around camp, by afternoon it was blowing snow through camp, building deep ridges between the tents, and by evening it was strong enough to bite through two coats and was accompanied by near whiteout conditions. This is what we feared the Antarctic was to be like, and has unfortunately delayed our planned departure to field camp near the coast (here the 'coast' is not like one imagines; it is where a thick block of ice flows off the land into a thinner sheet of ice which floats on invisible water underneath). So we now have to wait one, or possibly two, more days until our convoy departs for the field camp.

Finally, we 'rounded' the day off with a fabulous Maritime Mousse. If you haven't heard of this particular dessert before you shouldn't worry because it was only invented today. It began its life in the mind of its creator (Dr N) as a chocolate mousse, but things being as they are in the Antarctic, we seemed to be missing two rather important ingredients - namely chocolate and
mousse (or at least the egg whites that supply the essential 'moussiness'). So instead, we had a rather delicious Maritime Mousse, so-called because it is solid enough to set a ship's mast into and dense enough to be used as ship's ballast. It's always a bonus to have food that can multitask - but I'm afraid to say I ate all of mine.

Nos da cariad a fy mhachgen bach i.

(Today's blogger: BH)

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

The sound of silence

Tuesday 25 November 2008

Hello?!? Reality check??? Challenges, crises, problem solving??? No way: disregard last transmission, blue sky is far from boring, nothing like a scientist on the speed of incoming data @ 169 m/µs J! And good data it was. Our radioglaciologist, Kenny, got us the first ice thickness profile across the Utsteinen ridge. Postponing the daily highlight of dinner, he analyzed it right away, thus showing a splendid radargram over lasagne… So we did measure the sound of silence after all. Today, our new team member was also recruited for her first round of field work. Which was right before she had to mend Denis's finger. Indeed, the "drill" part of the team, Denis, Jean-Louis and Bryn were still doing the mecano of putting the ice core drill together. Putting the cumulative equivalent of 45 years of academic education together for a bit of DYI can have some foreseeable consequences.

Apart from the first scientific breakthrough from the journey, the first metaphysical conversation also occurred at dinner, between chicken and pasta. What's the difference between morality and ethics? As all metaphysical issues, this one raised more questions than answers, and Alain himself cut short, by pointing out "da's een beeke moeilijk voor u hein menneke".

Jean-Louis just walked in, and we barely recognized him: you have to know the "bathroom" was finalized today. A spare container from last year's cargo, magically made over by our carpenters to allow for the washing facilities: cabins with a washing basin, which needs to be filled at the hot
water tank, a curtain to undress in privacy, and above all, the fantastic luxury of a mean temperature around 18°C. So our JayLo came in with a smooth baby face, rosy cheeks, and very oddly smelling of soap and cologne, in this environment where the team's modeller could easily come up with an equation describing body odour as a function of time, temperature, and energy

It's 23:49 and the sun just got up, or rather reappeared from behind the nunatak. Bright blue sky and shining daylight, time to go to bed


Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Doc, doc, doc, . come in

Monday 24 November 2008

ULB on Ice got larger; not that we got more members in the BELISSIMA team; no, the medical doctor of the expedition at the Princess Elisabeth Station is also a research associate at the ULB. Therefore, ULB on Ice is a team of six as from now. Nathalie Pattyn - no, as far as we know there is no affiliation with the other Pattyn of the expedition - will stay here for the next 3 and a half months, in charge of the expedition's medical care, and running an experiment investigating people's sleep during this summer that lasts a day (or is it that day that lasts a summer?). In a couple of days the rest of the BELISSIMA team will leave for field work at the coast, and Nathalie will continue to furnish the blog with an account of our adventures in never-neverland.

If you think that going to the Antarctic is an encounter with harsh and cold conditions, you are wrong. Today we found ourselves in the tropics. Temperatures flirting with zero degrees centigrade, sunshine, no wind and a lot of sunburn. Ideal day for the team to get acquainted with the daily life of the station, i.e. dragging sledges, hauling bulks of wood, removing nails and bolts, etc. You understand: we are still without our cargo, waiting for the arrival of the last Bassler flight from Novo. And it eventually arrived at the end of the day: 2100 kg, half of it our cargo composed of the drills and radar equipment; the other half catering and building material for the
station. As from tomorrow we can start to test and prepare for the actual field work. Today has a bittersweet aftertaste: lovely day, with the most picturesque views of the surroundings, good humoured people all around, nothing dramatic happening, no new problem to solve, not the slightest hinge of a crisis. Blue sky is boring: who wants to read about a good news show?
At least, tomorrow, we will be testing the equipment, probably facing nice fresh challenges about missing pieces, non-functioning parts, delayed transportation to the research site.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Cape Town histories

Friday 21 November, 2008

Cape Town, South Africa, is the gate to the Antarctic, although it doesn't
appear to be at first sight. Especially at this time of the year it is
filled with tourists escaping Europe for a warmer climate, sun and beaches,
albeit that the coastal waters are very, very fresh. But Cape Town has
something in common with the Deep South: Penguins, these little African
Penguins, also called Jackass. There name is not appropriate if you see
these little creatures bathing in the sun, mostly lazy and all to often
chased by eager photographers. But the weather is nice; and this may count
as an appetizer for the Antarctic, where temperatures hardly get positive.

So here we are, waiting for our departure, sipping a cooled Chardonnay.
Impossible to imagine that within a day we will be confronted with the
bitter cold. In the meantime, we enjoy as much as we can.


Nothing new at Novo

Saturday 22 November 2008

If Cape Town is the gateway to the Antarctic, Novo is the hub of Dronning
Maud Land. The point were Germans, Norwegians, Fins, Russians, South
Africans, Indians, and recently also Belgians arrive to get redistributed
via feeder flights to their respective research stations. Novo is not a
fancy place: an airstrip of 3 km long on the ice on which an Ilyushin 76,
tents in yellow, red and blue fully equipped with heat blowers.

It all started at 1900h in Cape Town, the call for confirmation of the
flight, the green light, the Gogogogo!! – ready to embark on yet another
adventure. Checking out of the hotel, getting luggage ready, a quick meal,
drive to the airport, checking in for… yes, a flight to Antarctica, listed
on the boards between flight to Johannesburg, London and other sensibly
exotic destinations. And thus boarding it is: through duty free, the usual
lounge behaviour (a last drink, a last visit to civilized bathroom
facilities, the last text messages being sent home), and off we go. Getting
on board of the Ilyushin erases all similarities with conventional flights.
A cabin devoid of the usual frills, tons of hand luggage, and two 6 feet
tall Russian blokes instead of charming air hostesses. After 5 hours of
crammed flight, the utterly lively in-flight entertainment (the complete
work of Sir David Attenborough) was interrupted by a screen mentioning
"please, put your Antarctic clothes on". Imagine that at one time, 50
Norwegians, Germans, Belgians, Japanese, Russians, Indians rushed to the
back of the plane, trying to get a hold on that big bag full of polar gear.
Further try to picture the same crowd, in the still heated air plane,
changing in all possible, and preferably most uncomfortable positions to
thick, fleece lined Gore-Tex stuff, some being careful enough to put on
hats, gloves, and goggles at once, just to make sure to be ready in time.

There are no windows in the Ilyushin, so the only way for passengers to
catch a glimpse of what happens outside is the projection of the real-time
image fed by a camera under the nose of the aircraft. Besides offering the
advantage to spare of from air sickness (from ourselves and our fellow
travellers), this is the first view we caught of the polar ice: a mixture of
white with white, clouds, ice and air. It is a quite uncomfortable feeling
that seeing nothing on the screen may eventually lead to a touchdown on a
marked airstrip in the snow.

Once on the ground, the doors swing open, the fresh air gets in and a spark
of intense light reaches the interior of the aircraft. Hesitating we get
down on the ice, tired, uncomfortable, and completely disoriented by the
sudden change in temperature. The temperature may be -11°C, the wind blows
steadily and there is no sun to warm us all. It is 0400h in the morning and
bright daylight. Not much time to get over it, as the plane needs to be
unloaded and all the cargo divided over the different participating
expeditions. Unlike civilised airports, the cargo handlers are nothing more
that ourselves.

Finally after a couple of hours of work we are rewarded with a hot coffee in
the mess tent. It is 0700h in the morning and the only thing we want to do
is to go to bed!
Contrary to the initial plan, we won't be leaving Novo today: the weather is
not especially bright, and would not allow our landing at Utsteinen. This
day in no-man's land passes by through meals and naps.

A sort of homecoming

Sunday 23 November 2008

At 05.00 AM, under a clear blue sky allowing to eventually appreciate the
characteristic vastness of the Antarctic icescape, we're ready to go. After
the mandatory handling of the luggage, we board a Basler DC-3, which some of
you might remember from the early days after WWII. A short flight of 1 hour
and a half brings us to the known contours of the mountainous landscape of
the Sør Rondane Mountains, hopping over Perlebandet, Romnoesfjellet in the
back as a beacon of welcome. We land on the Utsteinen airstrip. It is new
for all of us, although the landscape is familiar. The spot where camp
became home.

We were welcomed by the base manager, carried to the base camp in the shadow
of the flying saucer-shaped Princess Elisabeth station. A briefing, visit of
the facilities, hot chocolate, getting installed and acquainted with the
surroundings. And at last, after 5 days of travel, everybody gets to work.
Well, not exactly everybody, since we're still waiting for our scientific
equipment to arrive. Again, the flight is delayed, which means we won't test
the drills and radar today. A walk on the glacier, helping out for some work
in the station, heavily socializing with our Japanese colleagues, and off to
bed. There's quite some atmosphere in the newly build station: a room with a

Friday, November 21, 2008

Antarctica tonight?

Hey - just a quick post to let you know that the whole team has arrived safe and sound in Cape Town on Wed. 19th Nov. After having got our last missing pieces of equipment at ALCI facilities in lovely Cape Town harbour, we all went on Thursday to ALCI headquarters for a logistical and safety briefing.
ALCI (Antarctic Logistics Centre International) is a logistics service provider in the Dronning Maud Land Antarctic area. It services an intercontinental bridge between Cape Town and the Russian Novolazarevskaya station in Antarctica. We had our initial departure date (21st Nov.) confirmed by the boss of Novo station.

Today was more relaxed, as we took advantage of this day off to go swimming and penguin watching at Simon's beach, South of Cape Town. Nathalie, the medic at the station, Jurgen, an electronics technician, and Jacques, a carpenter, joined us for the fun.

We are currently waiting 7:00 pm for Frank to call ALCI headquarters and get the lastest flight updates. Let's hope we will be able to make it tonight to Novo! After arrival, we will proceed with the unloading and sorting of the cargo. We should then spend a few days at the Belgian station Princess Elisabeth (PES), and head on by skidoo to our definitive camp site close to the coast.

Hoping not to see you too soon on this blog,
Denis ;-)

Monday, November 17, 2008

Ready 2 go

After weeks of preparation, testing, mending and sending equipement around (and eventually to Cape Town), we are ready to leave. Packing requires careful revision, revision of list, and more lists and then making sure that in the end it doesn't weigh all too much. Most of the electronic equipment I carry, GPSs, camera, Iridium telephone, meteo station, etc., has rechargeable batteries and half my payload consists of battery chargers and cable! Keep our fingers crossed that the generators (with backup and backup of backup) will do their work properly, or else...

J-0, too late to worry about all that; maybe not ready to go, but it is anyway time to go.


Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Testing BELISSIMA equipment in Switzerland

The scientific equipment that will be used for the 2008 BELISSIMA Antarctic field season was tested last October on Tsanfleuron Glacier, a small glacier located between Gstaad and Les Diablerets in Switzerland. Such test phase is particularly important within the framework of our expedition, since new types of equipment will be used. The main purpose of this Swiss trip was to test the ECLIPSE drill tower that one of our team members recently acquired. This drilling system is a modified version of the world-famous Hans-Tausen drill, designed some years ago at the University of Copenhagen, Denmark. The ECLIPSE drill is manufactured in Canada and is intended for drilling dry holes, i.e. without lubrication liquid, to depths of up to 350m. Despite the design has been proven at several locations in the Arctic, the version we have at disposal had never really been tested on the ice.

The weather conditions we met on Tsanfleuron Glacier were actually worthy of polar regions, and were thus very convenient for our tests. And what had to occur occurred: after several hours of coring work, the drill control box short-circuited due to some heat dissipators that burned up. The drilling testing phase was over, but we got what we wanted: we found the problems in our equipment. It is always better when this sort of trouble happens close to civilization than far down Big South.

The drill is now back in Canada, where it is being fixed.
See you soon for an update on the control box.


Saturday, October 18, 2008

BELISSIMA background

The Belgian government decided to construct a new scientific summer station in Antarctica. This station is located at the foot of the Sør Rondane Mountains in Dronning Maud Land.

A first reconnaissance expedition (joined by one of the ULBonIce members) was carried out to the Sør Rondane Mountains, Dronning Maud Land, Antarctica, November - December 2004 to select a potential site for the new Belgian research station on Antarctica (BELARE 2004). During this period we installed an automatic weather station, did D-GPS measurement of the site, ice radar sounding, and measured accumulation/ablation and ice velocity in the vicinity of the construction site. During a second expedition to the Sør Rondane Mountains, Dronning Maud Land, Antarctica in November - December 2005 (BELARE 2005), we collected the data from the weather station and did additional measurements on the site.

Glaciological research at ULB-GLACIOL (Université Libre de Bruxelles, Laboratoire de Glaciologie) essentially focuses on polar ice sheets, such as Antarctica. The 2008 expedition will concentrate on quantifying the mass loss/gain of the ice sheet in view of recent climate change.

There is currently a great lack of accuracy in the models that are used to predict the effect of climate change on the mass loss or gain of ice sheets. The major reason for this is that there is a lack of knowledge on the dynamic behaviour of grounding lines. The grounding line is the area where the ice sheet, as it flows towards the ocean, starts to float and forms an ice shelf.
While the carving off of icebergs further downstream constitutes the main cause for the mass loss of the Antarctic ice sheet, changes in the mass flux across the grounding line also has a direct impact on sea level. This is because as ice crosses the grounding line, it becomes part of the ocean system and positively contributes to sea level rise. It is therefore important to know the amount of mass loss that can be attributed to melting, but also the amount of mass loss that provokes an increased mass discharge across the grounding line. What we need to know, is whether these grounding lines are stable and how easily they migrate.

The last Antarctic expeditions we reported on this blog during the 2006-2007 winter were dealing with the Belgian research program ASPI (Antarctic Subglacial Processes and Interactions). This is now the BELISSIMA (BELgium Ice-Sheet/Shelf Ice Measurements in Antarctica) 2008 event, during which we will go to an ice rise situated 150 km away from the Princess Elisabeth Station, on the route to the station as you drive inland from the coast. This ice rise is a "pinning point" (an island of grounded ice sheet surrounded by floating ice shelves) that helps to stabilize the coastal ice sheet. From there, we can carry out ice radar and GPS measurements and drill an ice core. We are interested in studying the ice sheet's behaviour here over the last 10,000 years.

The purpose is not to extract a climate signal from the ice cores but to establish the deformation properties of the ice. The last glaciation terminated 10,000 years ago, as Earth entered the Holocene, a period of climate optimum. During this period of glaciation, the ice sheet expanded laterally over the continental shelf and reached areas that are now covered by ocean water. At the end of this glaciation, a major retreat of the ice sheet began, lasting until the beginning of the Holocene. The point of our research is to find out whether the ice sheet remained stable after this retreat or not. As such, we will be able to identify whether grounding lines migrate easily or not, a factor which has become important in view of recent global warming: further retreat of the grounding line drains more grounded ice into the ocean, making sea level rise. In some areas of the Antarctic ice sheet (Pine Island Glacier for instance), substantial grounding line retreat and ice sheet thinning have been observed over the last decade and have lead to a significant amount of ice loss.

With ice radar measurements, it is possible to map the internal layers and structure of the ice rise and, from there, see for how long the grounding line has been stable (by counting the layers). We also want to measure the ice flow and direction. It is possible to see from the radar data whether there was at a certain time a change in ice flow, a change in direction, etc. It is then possible to see how stable the grounding line was and when the grounding line was actually part of the big ice sheet had there remained a singular ice rise, etc.

Another point in the stability of grounding lines, and of ice rises in particular, is that when you go down to the coast itself to reach the grounding line, you find formation of marine ice: the ice sheet more or less breaks up to form bottom crevasses and, inside these open crevasses, ice of oceanic origin appears (ocean water that freezes in). Marine ice, however, can stabilize or destabilize the flow of the ice, depending on a varying number of parameters, and is therefore also an important aspect to study. In order to do so, you have to drill down, several hunderds of metres deep, and haul up an ice core with marine ice inclusions. It can then be analyzed in our lab in Brussels.