30.12.17 Finally some science!

30.12.17 Finally some science!

After the hole was made with the wrecking bar, the bamboo pole is set in.

After the hole was made with the wrecking bar, the bamboo pole is set in.

One good thing about working in Antarctica is: you don’t sit in front of the computer all the time. Instead, you start with some REAL tools. Here we are using a heavy wrecking bar and sledge hammer to set up a measuring transect, i.e. a line of bamboo poles, one 500m, one 100 long. I will take snow samples along the transects every day without drifting or blowing snow. In my trench I will do some measurements at the samples and at home they will be analysed in the laboratory.

Working with the heavy sledge hammer and crowbar to set up a measuring transect

Working with the heavy sledge hammer and crowbar to set up a measuring transect

At the other end of the spectrum, we are running a high-tech measuring device here, called Cavity Ring-Down Spectrometer, or shorter: Picarro (which is just the brand name). The Picarro continuously measures the so-called stable isotope ratio of the water vapor in the air.

What are stable isotopes? Isotopes are simply different types of molecules of the same element, which only have slightly different masses.  In case of water vapour or snow (or ice), there are oxygen and hydrogen molecules. They are called stable isotopes in contrast to unstable (=radioactive) isotopes, and here we solely talk about water molecules.

Why do we want to measure them? If you are very interested in the details, you can look it up here:



The data the Picarro measures are displayed on a screen on top of the instrument.

The data the Picarro measures are displayed on a screen on top of the instrument.

To learn something about the past climate, one of the most successful methods is the study of ice cores in Greenland or Antarctica. Those cores are about 3000m long and 10cm in diameter  and it takes several summer seasons to drill them. Then we can measure different things at the ice cores. For instance, there are air bubbles in the ice that give us information about the former constitution of the atmosphere, particularly about greenhouse gases. The oldest ice that was drilled so far is 800.000 years old! This means it covers 8 ice ages and 8 warm periods! We can also study the chemistry of the ice, e.g. we find volcanic ash from eruptions of volcanoes, which can be used for dating the cores. And then we can look at the ice itself and this gives us information about the air temperature in former climates. And here we need the stable isotopes: We measure the ratio of the different isotopes in the ice core, and this ratio depends in a complex way on the

The Picarro at Neumayer Station continuously measures the stable isotope ratio of water vapor.

The Picarro at Neumayer Station continuously measures the stable isotope ratio of water vapor.

temperature.  The ice in Antarctica, like in any other glacier, is not simply frozen water, like lake ice or sea ice, but it was formed from snow. The snow is compressed under its own weight and gets denser and denser until it becomes ice. This means it is nothing else but former precipitation. Thus, to derive the correct temperature from the stable isotope ratio, we have to understand all atmospheric processes that were involved until the snow fell and also what happened afterwards in the snowpack. More recently, it was found that even in periods without snowfall, the stable isotope ratios of the snow cover changes, following changes in the atmosphere. Here the Picarro comes into the game: we measure the stable isotope ratio of the water vapor in the air above the snow and compare it to that of the snow samples I take. To understand the relationship between the snowpack and the air above it, we use all the meteorological data that are being measured here at Neumayer Station, including upper air data from radiosondes. Thus we have a wealth of data that we can use for process studies and then hopefully apply the results to the interpretation of the deep ice cores in order to get a more exact paleotemperature.

Since I am taking the samples close to the air chemistry lab, everything has to be transported there without skidoos or pistenbully. (except when they built the trench, then the instruments that measure air quality were switched off temporarily.

Since I am taking the samples close to the air chemistry lab, everything has to be transported there without skidoos or pistenbully. (except when they built the trench, then the instruments that measure air quality were switched off temporarily (you can see the old tracks in the snow).

27.12.17 The real work begins

27.12.17 Start of my measurements

Just in time for christmas the weather decided to become good, and the christmas “holidays” turned out to be my hardest working days so far.

Before I tell you about serious science I would like to start with some practical things. I have to do measurements in a cold (below freezing temperature) and shady (no direct sunshine allowed) place. So, the construction team built a so-called “science trench” for me.  It can be explained best with photos:

The trench is dug out of the snow with a snow blower (rotary snow plough).

The trench is dug out of the snow with a snow blower (rotary snow plough).

Then a wooden roof is built, which will be covered by snow.

After the roof was finished, the first half of the trench was filled up with snow again, using a wooden plate as shield. Then a staircase was dug, which I can use to get out of the trench. It is covered by a wooden plate, too, and has to be covered by snow before the next blizzard comes. I was not allowed to help, but was standing there all the time with longing eyes: during our wintering we had done exactly the same thing (only the digging was done by hand) to build a ramp for the skidoos, and it had been so much fun to work with chain saw and shovel and build the whole thing ourselves, figuring out the best way to do it etc. Anyway, I got a very nice science trench and was busy for two days with sorting out things and making  refinements of the interior. Last night I closed the entrance with snow and when the storm has ended we will see if the trench is really tight. (To be on the safe side, I put the instruments in a metal box, just in case there will be snow blowing into the trench.)

Stairway to heaven...

Stairway to heaven…

Testing the instrument

Testing the instrument

25.12.2017 The new wintering crew arrived in time for christmas

25.12.2017 The new wintering crew arrived in time for christmas

The new wintering crew arrives with the Basler

The new wintering crew arrives with the Basler


The plane left immediately when everything was unloaded


It was still windy when the plane landed.

On Wednesday, the flying weather was not good, the surface contrast was pretty poor, but nevertheless the Basler brought the new wintering team and more summer people from Novo. The plane immediately flew back, and on the next day tons of cargo arrived, including my equipment that had been missing.


Unloading the plane

Suddenly we were 47 people on the base, and I could imagine how the winterers must have felt when the first plane arrived after the winter. In1990, there were no planes, and when the ship came the first time, it brought only a few people and we knew most of them. It did not feel like the base being suddenly run over by strangers.

Finally also the weather was good, so everybody wanted to visit the sea ice. The young emperor penguins are almost alone now, the adults have all gone to the open water to enjoy some seafood, so the predominant color in the colony is grey now.


The young emperor penguins are almost alone now

This time we went a bit farther and also saw Weddell seals. The young ones have grown so much, it is hard to distinguish them from their mothers from a distance. They were lying lazily on the sea ice, their main occupation is still growing. We had to cross a crack in the sea ice, but it was very small and not even I was scared. The sea ice is moving, though, and the crack had already been 30cm wide. Soon the time for the sea ice trips will be over, and by the time Polarstern arrives (end of January) the sea ice should be gone completely. Well, that’s the theory. It is different each year, sometimes the unloading of the ship takes place on the sea ice, sometimes the ice is too soft for unloading the heavy equipment, but too strong for the ship to get to the ice shelf edge. Then you can only wait and see.


another Weddell seal

Weddell seal on the sea ice

It was a wonderful trip again, the ice shelf edge is steeper where the seals are and looks more impressive than at the penguin colony, with a lot of shiny blue ice and steep flanks.

Then it was time to prepare for christmas. In the afternoon of the 24th we decorated the christmas tree. The tree was a plastic tree, but did not look too bad.

Christmas dinner

Decorating the christmas tree

Decorating the christmas tree

I remembered, back in 1990, Polarstern had come already in early December and brought us a real christmas tree from South America. It was some conifere and looked and felt like a christmas tree, only the fragrance of a real pine or fir was missing. We managed to place all 47 people plus two “guests” from the South African ship “Agulhas”, a doctor and his patient, in the “Messe”, the dining room. The cooks had outdone themselves and created a fancy dinner for us, and we also had plenty of South African wine.


Singing christmas carols on the roof of the base in the light of the almost midnight sun


After dinner we went to the roof of the station, where we sang christmas carols. The music and words of the most famous songs had been printed and were given to the people. Sometimes we even managed to start with the same tune. :-) After a while they started to sing old German pop songs, which seemed to work much better than the christmas carols, and everybody knew the words, too….
It felt a bit weird to sing christmas carols in such a bright, sunny environment, but we definitely had “White Christmas”!

Weathering the storm

17.12.2017 Weathering the storm

deutsche Version (ohne Fotos)

Unfortunately, the weather forecast was correct and since Wednesday we have blizzard conditions. Blowing snow and wind speeds up to hurricane force, so that working outside is as good as impossible. The observatories 1.5km south of the main station and also the little bivouac huts are connected to the main station by hand lines, which are set up between metal or bamboo poles that have a distance of about 5m. So you cannot get lost as long as you stick to the hand line.

The little huts that are connected by handlines to the main station (in the left corner)

The little huts that are connected by handlines to the main station (on the left ) The right hut is where I sleep.

In theory. The tricky thing is: While our old base was underneath the snow, the new one here is built on poles, 6 m above the snow surface. If it had been built simply on the snow surface, it would have been buried by snow within a year or two due to the frequent blizzards. To avoid this, the station is built on poles and additionally raised every year by about 2 m, so that meanwhile it is situated on a big snow hill. The wind blows over the hill and through the gap between the underside of the building and a wooden platform 6 m below. Due to the “funnel effect” the wind speed underneath the station is approximately 40km/h higher than in the surrounding areas and the deck is always snow-free. And no hand line on the deck, since people have to transport large things in and out of the base over the deck.

View from the station window to the huts outside. the hand line with the bamboo poles is clearly visible. In the full storm you cannot see anything  out of the window.

View from the station window to the huts outside. the hand line with the bamboo poles is clearly visible. In the full storm you cannot see anything out of the window.

Wednesday morning, when I walked from my little hut to the main station the wind hit me with brutal force when I reached the deck. From my experience on a summit weather station I thought it should be possible to just crawl, so I would give the wind less resistance and the wind is also weaker close to the ground. When I tried this, I was immediately blown away by the wind, I felt completely out of control, so I hurried to get on my feet again and, stemming myself against the wind, I somehow made it to the main entrance.

Before I went out again, I asked the wintering staff for advice how to handle the deck. Hauke, the meteorologist, suggested to walk to the east of the deck, where the wind speed is supposed to be lower due to a snow hill that forms in a storm a couple of meters east of the deck. Ok. I closed the main door behind me and tried to get to the eastern edge of the deck, but in spite of my efforts of leaning into the wind, I was simply blown back to the door. Obviously there was some turbulence right at the edge of the staircase tower, which increased the wind speed even more. So I aimed at a south-easterly direction (45° angle) now, made it to the snow surface east of the platform, and there the wind was really pleasantly “weak”, so that I could walk around the deck and then hit the hand line that starts at the southern edge. On the way back, I tried the same strategy, however, the moment I set my foot on the wooden  deck, coming from the east, with the storm from behind now, the wind packed me and blew me westwards with an unbelievable acceleration. I was completely out of control again, and I thought before I get smashed at one of the pretty blue poles I rather go down to the ground. Getting up from there turned out to be very difficult, too, so I ended up crawling on my elbows and belly the last meters to the door. A colleague, who just came out of the door, did not even see me in the blowing snow, even though he was only 3m away from me. That sounds scary, and it was! I have never experienced anything like this in my whole life before. We had been out in storms with hurricane force winds, but always on snow, and with the hand line, not on a slippery wooden deck without anything to hold on. It is like standing on the roof of a Mercedes that moves with more than 80 mph along the highway with nothing, no rail or anything to hold on.

Sofia, the air chemist, and Tim, the base leader, fighting the storm on the deck. The windspeed was about 130km/h, at least in gusts.

Sofia, the air chemist, and Tim, the base leader, fighting the storm on the deck. The windspeed was about 130km/h, at least in gusts.

Incredible! The wintering crew somehow managed to get along; the men, who are taller and heavier than we women seemed to have less problems, but even the air chemist, Sofi, a woman of about my size and weight, had developed a technique to handle this deck under such conditions. (To my comfort, some men of the summer crew had problems, too, and avoided the deck.) Well, for me it came a bit too sudden, so I stayed for two nights on the base, and afterwards I found out, that west of the deck the wind gets much weaker. Additionally, different from our old base underneath the snow surface with an entrance that was hardly visible in a snow storm, the big new base can always be seen, the snow-free deck is dark and you cannot really get lost. Also we have GPS nowadays, so you could always find your way home, even if the wind blew you a couple of meters away, so that you were surrounded by nothing but a whirling white hell. In the old days, without GPS, we used to cling to the hand line for our lives, and this was really necessary. People have got lost and found frozen to death just a few meters from a building in Antarctica (not here, thankgod).

Sofi and Tim disappearing in the blizzard

Sofi and Tim disappearing in the blizzard

Probably, for me to adjust to the conditions here was more difficult than for a newcomer, because I had it ingrained in my brain that I never must go anywhere in a blizzard without a hand line. So, that was quite an  impressive new experience, but meanwhile I am quite relaxed since I know I can handle this and I feel absolutely comfortable on the snow surface west of the deck, even at very high wind speeds. You are never too old to learn…!

Icebergs and penguins

13.12.2017  The calm before the storm

deutsche Version (ohne Fotos)

pingipanoSince a cyclone was supposed to arrive last night and cause blizzard conditions for the rest of the week, with partly hurricane-force winds, we decided to do a little trip to the sea ice after dinner to see the icebergs and penguins. It had been blowing from SW the whole day, but between the SW wind and the easterly winds of the next storm we knew there had to be a quiet period. We caught exactly that period with almost no wind between 7pm and 10:10pm last night.

eisberg1-klThe edge of the ice shelf, the floating glacier ice plate the station is built on (more later) is only 8km (~5 miles), away, by skidoo about 20min. From the edge, a snow ramp that the wind has formed during the many storms leads down to the sea ice below. In late summer, the sea ice here melts completely away, but right now the ice in Atka Bay is still solidly frozen. Many icebergs of bizarre shapes and colors are lying there. We went out on the sea ice to a very beautiful iceberg, parked the skidoos and went for a walk around it. Penguins were travelling all over the place , single or in small groups, either walking or, the faster option: sliding on their bellies, with the feet as “motor” and the wings as “paddles”.eisberg3z-kl A cloud bank from the cyclone “ante portas” fringed the horizon, and the shiny white icebergs in the distance stood in sharp contrast to the dark grey clouds. In front of us, the huge iceberg was looming high above us, glistening in the sunshine against a deep blue sky, continuously changing its colors and shape while we were walking around it (at a safe distant, of course, since icebergs are no stable constructs, they move, so the ice surrounding them is thin, and also parts can fall off). It was breathtakingly beautiful! In the distance, Neumayer Station could be seen at the western horizon on the ice shelf, looking rather unreal, like a UFO, and definitely a completely alien object in this environment.

pingieisbergAfter our walk we got back on the skidoos and drove to the penguin colony. Thousands of emperor penguins, the biggest penguins in Antarctica, breed here in winter during the cold and dark polar night. Meanwhile the chicks are already fairly big, but they are not molting yet and their grey baby feathers look like soft fur. They have to get their adult black and white feathers before they are able to swim. If the sea ice breaks up too early for them, they’ll die.

While in winter they stand close together in order to stay warm and shield each other from the wind, the birds were now scattered all over the place, standing in little groups, the chicks chirping with their high-pitched baby voices. A sight not many people get to see in their lives. I feel privileged and grateful to be able to work in such an incredible environment. The nightly sun was shining golden on the snow, when we arrived at home on the base. Now we will happily survive a week in the blizzard in front of our computers…




We made it!

11.12.2017 We finally made it to Antarctica!

deutsche Version (ohne Fotos)

Sunday morning at 5am we started in Capetown. We had expected a flight in a Russian cargo plane (“wooden-bench class”), but due to  some safety issues with that plane they had to charter a fancy Boeing 757 instead that is usually used by Bill Clinton, Phil Collins and the likes…

We flew in the VIP section of this charter machine, strange experience for us poor scientists....

We flew in the VIP section of this charter machine, strange experience for us poor scientists….

Interesting experience, but the best part was that we were allowed to go into the cockpit. The pilots and the co-pilot were very nice and I stayed there for quite some time. Outside there was nothing to see but clouds, though. After a very smooth landing on the blue ice runway of Novo, we changed to the small, heavily loaded Twin Otter, which brought us directly to Neumayer.


The guys from British Antarctic Survey enjoying their breakfast

The guys from British Antarctic Survey enjoying their breakfast

Today the sun is shining, but it is breezy with drifting snow, the icebergs in Atka Bay keep disappearing and reappearing, I hope I can soon get closer to them, but the forecast for the rest of the week is blizzard, which is good from a professional point of view since 2/3 of my scientific cargo has not arrived yet, so I cannot start with my measurements anyway.


In the cockpit of the 757

In the cockpit of the 757

The Antarctic Research Base Neumayer III

The Antarctic Research Base Neumayer III

The Twin Otter and the Boeing 757 at the Novo runway

The Twin Otter and the Boeing 757 at the Novo runway

9.12.2017 Robben Island

9.12.2017 Visit Robben Island – another “tourist thing”?

deutsche Version (ohne Fotos)


Another day of “waiting” for flying weather in Capetown. While the group from British Antarctic Survey (BAS), who will fly with us to Novo and then on to Halley, went on safari, I decided to take a tour to Robben Island, the former prison island in Table Bay. Admittedly, apart from the fact that I had been interested in South African history and the anti-apartheid movement ever since my first visit to this country, one reason to go there was that I wanted to experience Capetown once more from the sea. Well, after 5 min the ship disappeared in a fog bank and Table Mountain was gone. (So much for “experiencing Capetown from the sea”).


Fog bank above the cold water of the Atlantic Ocean west of Capetown

We arrived with the boat at the island in the fog, which did not make it appear more cheerful. A flat, windswept, small island, surrounded by the chilly waters of the Benguela Current. I found it rather depressing, all the fences, watch towers and old prison buildings, the quarries, where the prisoners were forced to work. We also saw two old churches. After they had driven us around in a bus for a while, we were shown the cells of the high-security prison, where, among others, Nelson Mandela had served 18 years of his 27-year sentence. 


Nelson Mandela

Nelson Mandela

Our guide there was a former inmate, who told us about his personal experience. We were all seated on wooden benches in one of the big cells, in which forty or fifty prisoners had lived together. About 30 tourists, who listened carefully to the guy telling his story, the looks on their faces becoming more and more disturbed, no matter of which color the face was. When we were shown Nelson Mandela’s cell, I did not even feel like taking photos, it seemed somehow inappropriate. So, I must say, I was deeply impressed by this visit, it was clearly no touristic sightseeing for fun, and I can only hope that this beautiful country can overcome its difficulties in the not too far away future.

The last political prisoner was released in 1991. Robben Island is a  museum now. The UNESCO declared it a World Heritage Site in 1999.


View to Table Mountain on the way home from Robben Island. Had to take the photo through a little hole close to the bottom since we were not allowed on deck and the windows were all wet with seaspray.

The less serious end of the story: I finally got the chance to use my admittedly restricted vocabulary of the Zulu language (saved in my brain 25 years ago) and thanked the guide in his mother tongue: Syabonga gakulu! He understood me perfectly and was appropriately impressed. And on the way home we did see Table Mountain from the boat again.



Stranded in Capetown

7.12.2017  Stranded in Capetown…

deutsche Version (ohne Fotos)


View from Table Mountain to Capetown

Whether “progress” is an advantage or not, is hard to say… After having landed safe and sound in Capetown on Tuesday morning we were supposed to fly to the Russian Antarctic base Novolazarevskaya (shortly: Novo) tomorrow. In spite of fantastic weather at Novo our flight was postponed to next week, though, since a so-called “feeder flight” that should bring a group of Indian scientist with a small plane to the main runway at Novo was impossible due to the weather conditions at their location. Since they will fly back to Capetown with “our” big plane, we have to wait until they arrive at Novo. Then we might get stuck there, until our feeder flight to Neumayer has the right aviation weather. We’ll see. We got the bags with our polar cloths, which we need to change to in the plane before landing, and we also had to check in our main luggage already at the flight briefing yesterday. So we have to survive in Capetown now with hand luggage (8kg incl. the notebook!) for an uncertain time period. With 34°C (93F) outside, it means washing a few things by hand almost every day. Not good, since they are experiencing a severe drought here in Capetown and we try to save water.

The good news: we will most likely not fly with the Russian cargo plane, but with a fancy Boeing 757, which should allow as to look out of the windows! Maybe it is worth the waiting…

In the olden days, we went by ship to Antarctica, which took us about 10 days. I am not sure we will make it to Neumayer in 10 days flying with the planes… However, RV Polarstern, the German research ice breaker, is due at Neumayer not before 22 January, so hopefully we will still be earlier than that.


The South African Antarctic research vessel RV Agulhas II in the harbour of Capetown. She is due to leave for Antarctica any time.

Meanwhile, I play tourist and try to enjoy Capetown. It is full summer tourist season now, but the beauty of the city is mostly caused by its surroundings: the mountains and the sea. Thus I took a little trip on a sailing boat last night and finally had a familiar feeling, seeing Capetown as I was “used” to when I arrived with Polarstern in 1986, 1991, and 1992. Beautiful!


Capetown with Table Mountain, Lion’s Head and Devil’s Peak