18.3.2018 The present and the past
I promised a last blog entry and here it comes. (Different from the previous posts, this time comments are possible.) I am writing this in Tromsø, at almost 70° North, so almost the same northern latitude as the southern latitude Neumayer is situated at.
On November 20th I wrote: „In two weeks I will fly to Capetown, and, weather permitting, I will arrive at Neumayer a couple of days later. Will it feel like coming home? The familiar sight of the vast, rough snow surface, the view to the beautiful icebergs in Atka Bay, the distant, blue “hill” Halfvar Ridge… Or will it be a completely new experience, on a modern base in times of internet, planes etc.?“
The short answer is: both! Life at the new base in 2018 was 99% different from life at the first base in 1990, however, the Antarctic nature was as awesome, overwhelming and breathtakingly beautiful as ever! I thought about what the largest differences were. It is difficult to explain in a few words. Internet, water supply, and the large number of always changing people at the base made the biggest difference for me. Internet means you are connected to the world, to your friends and family, but also to your institute and colleagues. In 1990, we were more or less completely on our own, if anything broke, we had to repair it without much support, one way or the other. Today you can call the institute (at no cost in case of Alfred-Wegener-Institute in Bremerhaven), people can send instructions, even videos etc. I could write this blog, I could check the weather charts, read the newspaper etc. etc. The winterers today still feel „isolated“, and, of course, they are, but it is very different from a situation with short-wave radio as only means of communication.
Then the water supply. It only stands for the extremely smooth running of daily life at the base. As I mentioned earlier, in 1990, we had to shovel snow for each drop of water we used, which was hard physical work, and we really learned to appreciate the water. Today this work is done by Pistenbully, you can take as many showers as you like, do your laundry as often as you like, without even thinking about where the water comes from. There are specialists for everything, as a scientist you are not involved in any general station work anymore (apart from drying the dishes….). This is what I meant when I said I felt detached from the Antarctic world, you hardly realize where you are as long as you are inside the station.
And then the number of people. On my first Antarctic expedition with POLARSTERN, we were about 100 people, half of them crew, the other half scientists, which is a lot, but the people were the same the whole time. So, at the end of the cruise it was very sad to say goodbye. Also during the summer campaign at the old base, we were less people than today, and they did not fly in and out all the time, but the ship brought everybody at the beginning of the summer and at the end everybody left at the same time (except the winterers, of course). At Neumayer III, various sub-group existed, of people who knew each other already, and for the few scientists, who were on their own, like me, it was not easy to connect to people. So, I waved each plane that was leaving goodbye, but I admit I felt sad only once…
However, this is all of only minor importance. My main reason for going to Antarctica was and is the fantastic nature: the ice, the wildlife, the beautiful light, the varying colors of the ice, the water and the sky. On my first trip to the sea ice in December 2017, when we were approaching the beautiful icebergs, I had tears in my eyes. I am very happy that I got the opportunity to see all this again, I feel privileged to have been able to spent a total of two years in Antarctica meanwhile, and I am convinced that it is important to be aware of where you are rather than forgetting the real life in front of your computer screen (as some people seemed to be in danger of). After all, apart from overwinterers and those who work during the summer in Antarctica, only very few very rich people get the chance to see Antarctica, and for all the others we should be a kind of ambassadors of Antarctica who tell the people about its beauty, its fascination and its fragile ecosystem. A paradise that has to be protected and saved for coming generations.