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/┬Ás 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.