A winterover in Antarctica

Antartica is the continent of all extremes : the southest, the coldest, the highest. 98 % of it is covered by ice or snow, this glaciation began 40 millions ago..
Even though man never really settled or flourished there, stations were established where life is confortable in spite of this harsh environment, to which we're absolutely not adapted.

Personnally, I've always been fascinated by large (empty) spaces that remind us that we are very little compared to them. These landscapes fill us with humility and respect.
However, I don't think it is really necessary to set off so far to experience these sensations as they are many wonders on earth. That's indeed fortunate, because Antartica is not that close.

Is it really necessary to say that to go there is not as easy as to other places on our beautiful blue planet ? Tourism is growing though, mainly in the antartic peninsula. But once there at great price (not everyone can afford it, nor has the time to actually go), it is even more difficult to stay there for an extended period of time. We are indeed very lucky to have had the opportunity to live there one year !
Furthermore, when winter comes, seaice spreads from the coast to about a hundred kilometers ashore, limiting strongly the ships progression or preventing it entirely. Plane isn't a good alternative either, as it's not yet well developped for tourism and requires heavy logistics. Antartica coasts are only accessible in summer, from november to the end of february, when all the ice has melted. Starting in March, Austral winter comes back, allowing the formation of seaice. Those who want to enjoy the beauty of antartica winters have then no other choices than to winterover in a polar base, such as the french station Dumont D'Urville.

The Dumont d’Urville station has been built in 1956 on Pétrels Island in Adelie Land. One year on this station is divided in two summer periods and one winterover. During winter, which lasts 8 months, around twenty people live isolated. Among these people, there are biologists, vets, physicist, computer specialists or glaciologists. During winter, they carry on scientific programs that were implemented in summer by PhD students or professors with the assistance of winter-overs. Research projects include : cold adaptation by adélies pinguins, dynamics of birds living on the archipelago, marine biology, the study of the hole in the ozone layer, atmospheric chemistry, glaciology, magnetic field study and acquisition of seismic data.
Nevertheless, the group isn't composed of scientists only. There are also technicians (such as an electrician, a mechanics, a plumber, a solder, a carpenter,…), a cook, a baker, a physician and a station leader. Their job is to make sure the station stays in working order during the 8-month winter.

I’ve spent 2010 in Antarctica with 25 other people, and together we formed the 60th french polar mission, the TA 60 for short. Why TA60 ? Simply, because it’s the 60th time that a french mission does a winterover in Adelie Land.

With some other TA60's and people staying only for summer, I departed from Charles De Gaulle airport, Paris on december 1st 2009 at 1H05 pm to Hong-Kong. After a 11-hour long flight, we spend some time in the streets of Hong Kong. We take off again to Sydney, where we finally arrive on december 3rd at 9h40.But the journey to Antarctica is long. We have to take another plane to Hobart, in Tasmania, and then a ship, the Astrolabe. It does every year five rotations between Hobart and Dumont d’Urville (DDU) to bring people and equipment to Antarctica.
We leave Hobart harbor on december 4th 2009 (which corresponds to the second Astrolabe rotation which is called R1, the first rotation being R0). We are in for a 8-day crossing in a flat bottomed ship, which feels like a washing machine when we face those famous seas with eloquent names : the roaring forties and furious fifties. There is no better diet for those who want to shed some weight, as most people are forced to stay in their berth by seasickness. Six days later, we reach the pack zone. This large area of ice slows down our progression and gives us the first hint that we are coming close to our destination. Then come icebergs : these floating ice cathedrals leave us people speechless but it's advised to watch them from a distance... anyway we are getting closer !On December 10th, the pack becomes too thick for the ship to get through and the helicopter takes over. I get in the helicopter on December 11th in the morning to the Dumont d’Urville french antarctic station. After, 20 minutes of flight (and a grand total of 10 days of travel), I achieve my goal.
After landing, we are welcomed by the previous mission who show us around the station. After a few days of settling in, our predecessors begin to train us in the job that will be ours for one year.

We live on Petrels Island which is one of the islands composing the Pointe Geologie archipelago. Upon our arrival, we’re lucky, the sea ice hasn't melted yet. We can do some walks around the archipelago, the destination of choice for us newcomers being of course the rookery, to see for ourselves for the first time emperor penguins. A short time after our arrival, the increasing temperature combined with strong winds breaks the remaining sea ice, confining us to our little island. This gives us an opportunity to make further acquaintance with our neighbours: the adelie penguins, snow petrels, cape petrels, fulmars or seals napping on the island.

Time flies and it’s time for the last TA59’s winterovers to be shipped back to civilization. On February 28th 2010, the last rotation of the Astrolabe (R4) ends. All scientists and technicians who spent the summer here have to depart too, leaving us on the island for a 8-month isolation. Winterover can begin on the most beautiful rock of the world…

Little by litte, the group finds its marks. The population on the station is reduced from around one hundred people in summer to 26 winter-overs, which makes for a completely different rhythm. Our workload becomes less, so we have much more time to enjoy of the wildness around us and its wonders. While waiting for the sea-ice to reform, we get to know the island's every turns. With winter coming, the birds and seals depart slowly, leaving us with a feeling of emptiness. Silence is no more broken by birds chirping but by noises caused by station activity. In mid-march, sea-ice reforms and we observe the first emperor penguins coming back. Ice is still too thin to walk on in total safety, patience is the keyword… Weeks pass and temperature is always below -10°C, the thickening of the sea-ice.

In mid-April we can finally leave the island. Emperors penguins are now numerous (around 6000 birds) and we observe their day-to-day life in this place where life becomes something rare and is a permanent struggle. Nevertheless, the first eggs are sighted at the beginning of May. The female, once her egg laid, gives it to the male and goes back to the ocean to feed and build up some strength to be able to face the hardships of winter.

Sun has made itself scarce for some weeks already, grazing the horizon and giving rise to long but beautiful nights. Most of us have never seen the southern hemisphere constellations and even less aurorae australis. This phenomenon appears during solars eruptions, when solar particles collide with earth magnetic field. Because of the latter, particles are led to the poles where they excite atmospheric molecules, bringing about the liberation of photons, and thus light. A lot of us spent clear nights scrutinizing the heavens to see if an aurora was going to illuminate our nights. For our ancestors, this phenomenon was considered of mystical importance with a good or bad meaning according to the peoples who observed them. But whatever they mean or how they appear…they marked us forever.

When we think about Antarctica, we think about temperatures around -80°C (-112 °F) where going out is frightful. DDU escapes this rule because it’s offshore from the continent. The coldest temperature recorded in Dumont d’Urville is -37,5°C (-35,5 °F, 1990). Colder temperatures can only be experienced in the heart of Antarctica, where temperatures can reach -89°C (-128°F), like at the russian station Vostok. This value is the coldest temperature recorded on earth.
The main feature of DDU is this famously violent wind called katabatic wind. It is caused by a fast downward motion of cool air from the continent, and is very effective in cooling us down. The Adelie land is one of the windiest region of the earth ; on June 16th 1972, a gust has been recorded at 324 km/h (201 mph, but a lot of people question this value due to the equipment reliability at the time). The strongest gust officialized by Meteo France engineers (the main weather forecast agency in France) is 245 km/h (152 mph, on May 23th 1988). In 2010, the coldest tempertaure was -34,1°C (-29,4 °F on September 7th 2010) and the maximal gust was 180 km/h (112 mph on April 2nd 2010).

June arrives along with the first chicks. However, most females haven't returned yet and the males which are still brooding eggs haven't eaten for nearly four months. June is very symbolic during the winterover, especially the end of month. Not because the first eggs hatched but because all antarctic and subantartic stations celebrate the midwinter during week of the 21st. On the program, differents kinds of celebrations, theme parties or St Jean fires (the french midsummer bonfire). This week announces the end of half of the adventure. From there, everything goes very fast till the return of ship, ending the winterover and the isolation. But there are still four months left, so enjoy.
After June 21th, the day of the summer solstice and so the shortest day of the year, days begin to become longer and we gain nearly one hour of sun per week. Long walks around the Astrolabe glacier are now possible and little emperors chicks are more and more numerous everyday, to our delight. Thinking about it, it’s a great privilege to be able to see a whole reproduction cycle of an animal as fascinating as the emperor penguin. It’s a beautiful reward in our isolation to see life appear and grow right before our eyes.

In August, days are considerably longer already and long hikes can really start, as it's already bright at 9 in the morning and that darkness only comes back around 5pm. It gives us more time to go outside and to contemplate the icebergs, these ice cathedrals kept immobile by the icesea and that can rise up to 30 meters above our heads. These walks infuse us with awe. When we pass on the other side of the glacier, where there are only the iceshelf and the icesea as far as the eyes can see, we feel very small and realize how incredible it is to experience this once in our life. What is also outstanding in Antarctica is the omnipresent silence. Sure, icebergs are creaking and sometimes collapsing, but when we are on the iceshelf on a day without any wind, everything is perfectly still. We realize then that in these distant and dangerous lands, we are well alone and that nothing exists around us. Personally, I mostly felt filled with serenity during these moments.

With passing months comes increasingly the thought of the end of the winter-over and our departure. 6 months left before the end, then 5, then 4, it all looks to us like time is passing at an incredible speed. When we arrive, we all have projects all set up : I'd like to read this, learn that but before we know it, time flies, and weather permitting, we rather go outside to enjoy the nature around us than stay indoors. With the end coming, the station is bustling with activity as everyone is trying to do as much as possible. Our job is taking much of our time but we still spend long hours on the sea ice, knowing perfectly well that most of us will never come back here.
Although most of us came here to contemplate all these wonders, we are primarily here to do a job. As I mentioned previously, I worked during the year as one of the two atmospheric chemists (and occasionally glaciologist) in DDU. The bulk of my work was atmospheric chemistry as I was required to carry out daily air sampling and sample analyses (The work of a chemist during a winterover in Dumont d’Urville). The glaciology part of my job drove me to collect data from beacons and meteorological stations situated on the iceshelf (The work of a glaciologist during a winterover in Dumont d’Urville).

Soon it will be the end of the winterover and in a few weeks, we will see the familiar faces of the people who left us last year at the end of the summer campaign again. We speak more and more about future projects and especially about the holidays that we will take after Antarctica. For most of us it will be Tasmania, Australia or New-Zealand, but nothing prevents us from exploring others countries. There are so many beautiful things to see in this world.

The day so dreaded arrives : soon the summer people will return, and the next winterovers will come to replace us. Because of the thickness of the sea ice and the breakdown of one its propeller, the ship can’t come ashore and so stays out in the open sea. Two helicopters will carry on the transfer of people and load to the station.
However, during the first transfer, the second helicopter never arrived to DDU, victim of a crash on the ice sea. Four people were on board and some of us knew two of them well…What happened weighed heavily on our spirit. Even though it was a painful moment, it isn't much compared to what the victim’s families probably had to go through. I hope they will be always well surrounded in these difficult moments because they will have to live with this tragedy and go on with their lives. So goes life and selfishly, I wish I'll never know what it feels like…

The Astrolabe ships back to Tasmania to get repaired. Only one helicopter and its four passengers were able to be off-loaded from the boat. The pilot continues the winterover with us and the three others go to the Cap Prud’Homme station situated in five kilometers of DDU to get it ready for the start of the summer. They have to prepare the RAID, this famous ground convoy which connects each year the coast with the inland french-italian station, Concordia.
The winterover continues in 27 in another atmosphere but the life continues and each resumes its activities. What can we do?

The real end of the winterover was November the 16th with the landing of the first plane on the D10’s runway, situated near Cap Prud’Homme. With pleasure, we see again some people we knew from the previous year and we welcome the newcomers, especially the winterovers of the TA61 with « welcome home ». Even though it is pleasant to see new faces, the number of people in the station is multiplied by two and I prefer staying a bit alone the first two days to get used to the new rhythm of the station. The second plane arrives on November 20th bringing along new people and also some of those who should have come with R0. For us, the two glaciologists, that means the return of our superiors and a change in the rate of atmospheric sampling because the chemical activity of the atmosphere is much higher in summer than during the winter.

Time flies and It's about time now to finish packing up my stuff in my trunks, and free the room that I occupied since December 11th 2009. It isn't mine anymore, and will be occupied by a TA61’s winterover who arrives by R1.
Around two weeks left before I leave this place that got me dreaming so much. So, I spend most of my free time walking on the island and on the remaining seaice, even late in the night (or very early the morning, whatever you prefer). I enjoy each little moment that I have left here, take pleasure in watching the last of the emperors, the chicks who are well grown now, the sunsets and sunrises, that leave the sly ablaze with color and that can only be seen here…these two last weeks were really unforgettable.

On December 15th 2010, the R1 rotation arrives, bringing along new faces and one of the two that will replace us. Days are spent training him (sparing some time for last walks though)…so fun to play the teacher.

This is it… The day so dreaded by me : I leave Petrel Island on December 18th 2010. This Island that I called and will forever call « the most beautiful rock of the world ». Even though it was very sad for me to leave, it was a great privilege and an extraordinary luck to have lived one year in Antarctica. Also, this beautiful adventure, begun more than one year ago, is not yet finished … two months of vacation in Australia and New Zealand are still waiting for me !


Thanks to all those who gave me the privilege to live this exceptional adventure.
Thanks to this wilderness for these happy moments and to the TA60 with whom I shared them.
It belongs to all those who were lucky enough to live here, the right (or the duty) to protect these faraway lands so that the next generations can, in turn, contemplate these wonders and protect Antarctica as long as possible…

Nicolas COILLARD