6:30am, I look out of the window of my little hut: I see the station and the neighbor huts, but otherwise just white, white, white. It is the fifth day in a row that we have “whiteout”. Whiteout occurs when the sky is overcast by low clouds and the light is multiply reflected between the snow surface and the clouds. This leads to conditions, where there are no contrasts anymore. The structure of the snow surface disappears, no horizon can be seen, the snow surface seems to blend into the sky. Only at the northern horizon the sky is dark grey, because of the reflection of the dark sea water. This is called “water sky” and the old sailors and whalers used it to find open water for their ships in
the pack ice. The visibility to the distance can still be very high in a whiteout, only you cannot estimate sizes and distances, a little black object could be a hut or container in the distance or just a matchbox close by. Back in 1990 we took some photos to demonstrate whiteout. I apologize for the bad technical quality of the scanned old slides, but they really show you what it means. These conditions are particularly dangerous for flying, and especially for helicopter flying.
For me, it means a normal working day. I still ski to my science trench, only I cannot see the little obstacles formed by the wind at the surface. I more or less “feel” my way, my skis and my feet tell me what the surface is like. I get stuck in soft snowdrifts because my old Rottefella binding is wider than the skis, I get stopped by hard sastrugis (snow obstacles formed by the wind), and sometimes the surface is hard and icy, so that my skis can cross if I am not paying attention. The work is the same as usual, sampling snow and doing measurements on them in my trench, only that I don’t mind so much working in the trench when the sun is not shining outside anyway. Cutting the longer samples is tedious work, it does not feel like doing great science, but the data set we will have in the end is unique in Antarctica! Together with a long time series of stable isotope data of fresh snow that started in 1981 and to which I contributed when I wintered in 1990, the new snow data, in combination with the water vapor data from the Picarro and the complete meteorological data will give us the chance to do great science. However, nowadays, everybody just contributes little bits to the picture, tiny steps to a larger entity, and eventually we will get a much better understanding of the complex processes that are involved in ice core studies and thus in climate. I must say, though, I do not envy the people, who have to cut the deep ice cores of 3000m length…
On the way to the sea ice, after about 6km (4 Miles) we always pass two crosses, plain wooden crosses that have been set up to remember two men, who died in a helicopter crash in 2008. I have thought for quite a while about whether I should mention this here in my blog or not, but I decided to do it. The crosses have been taken care of all these years, they are raised regularly, otherwise they would be buried in the snow in one season. I have never met those people, but I think of them each time I go by on the skidoo, and I think it is a good thing that they are not forgotten here in Antarctica. And it is also a reminder for us that, in spite of all the modern technical progress, the Antarctic nature is still dangerous and requires our utmost respect.