First day in Antarctica

My first morning waking up in Antarctica! After a breakfast of creamy rice porridge (with an extensive option also of bread, cheese, fish, pizza, deep fried battered sausage roll, jelly and macaroons) we visited Bellingshausen’s closest neighbours – a few minutes trudge through (sometimes knee or thigh) deep snow past the Chilean Villa de las Estrellas (the only “village” in Antarctica and home to 47 people – which also has a school, hospital and post office, though this was rather snow covered and, not surprisingly, closed) – and on to Escudero, the Chilean base. The snow drift reaches the windows of some buildings here, and even the roofs of others. It has been snowing on and off all day (to varying degrees), though Lydia, in a tiny window of opportunity mid-morning, was able to take off to continue her journey to Halley.

In Escudero we met Frederiko, an Argentinian logistics officer who invited us in for a welcome coffee with condensed milk and chocolate chip cookies and entertainment provided by Chilean rock radio. Escudero houses INACH (Instituto Antarctico Chileno – the Chilean equivalent of the Dallman institute which we will be working in at Jubany). We were introduced to the Chilean base commander, Alan, who said he would see if he would be able to help us transport our cargo via helicopter to Jubany once the weather settles and explained the difficulties associated with boat travel at this time of year. The sea ice only started melting last week so there are no zodiacs on the water yet and, without the availability of a rescue vehicle, it’s not safe to launch a zodiac with no emergency backup. A helicopter is the only other potential means of transport to Jubany other than by sea but the Chilean military are not allowed to carry civilians without the permission of the relevant embassy. At almost 300kg a helicopter would be the preferred option for our cargo rather than several journeys by zodiac but we will see. Everything is determined by the weather so for now we have no option but to sit and wait for it to clear and be very grateful for our wonderful Russian hosts.

Back at Bellingshausen the wildlife population of one skua outside the dining building yesterday had become two by late morning and three by the afternoon – large, brown and distinguishable within the white snow. In the bay there was also a large flock of Antarctic tern at the waters edge. Within the cove the sea ice drifts slowly, large strangely shaped chunks of blue-white ice contrasting against the dark water and grey sky.

After a substantial lunch of delicious pork stew, slabs of roast turkey, lettuce and crab stick salad, bread, cheese, pizza, tangerine jelly, macaroons and raspberry drink, accompanied by the cooks choice of Chilean music, we tied up the crates of field gear (currently stored by the beach) in anticipation of a 40 knot afternoon breeze and headed back through the developing semi-blizzard to the comfort of our Russian accomodation. After dinner(turkey, cabbage, a Russian speciality which was a cross between tortellini and dimsun filled with meat balls, turkey and vegetable terrine and macaroons) the semi-blizzard had developed into the first sea storm since the last ice free period in May, with waves splashing energetically up the ice cliffs. Already our kit boxes were covered in snow. Maybe we should have placed bets on the depth of fresh snow cover by the morning.

A group of us migrated to the games room for some ping pong and billiards, looking out of the window regularly to gauge the progress of the storm outside. Eventually we braved it back to our accommodation, struggling through thigh depth snow as the path had already disappeared. Luckily the wind was behind us but I turned round to face it as we arrived back at the building, just for the experience which almost took my breath away. Dirk smiled at me and laughed “Welcome to Antarctica!”

Flight day!

Today was flight day! After a stop en route to the airport for the Russians to stock up with final essentials (notably 80L of coca cola) we headed to our plane (Lydia, a Basnar), driving straight up to the plane as Aldolfo from Agunsa had already dealt with customs for us. We (Dirk, Steve and I) were catching a lift with the Russians bound for Bellingshausen base – 2 to overwinter on Bellingshausen, 2 flying on to Novo and beyond via Halley to finish the final preparations for a new landing strip in time for an important Aleutian scheduled to land in less than a weeks time. Kirk (Jamaican Canadian) and Jack (Canadian) were our expert pilots. Our cargo consisted of 9 crates of field kit for Steve and I, numerous boxes of fresh food and other supplies, enough clothing and personal belongings for the Russians for up to 16 months (and us for 2 months), and two toilets and various shower and plumbing items for Jubany base as the recent winter weather has played havoc with the plumbing system. Ironically, despite carrying two brand new toilets with us, there was no toilet available during our 4 hour flight to King George Island.

The flight over the Darwin Cordillera before reaching the Drake Passage was spectacular with huge mountains and glaciers peeking out beneath the clouds below. The Basnar was not pressurised so, despite it being cloudy in places, we were flying low enough to get a fantastic view. Half way through the flight there was a noticeable drop in temperature and excitement set in as we caught a glimpse of our first ice bergs. After an hour or so of an ice berg laden southern ocean King George Island came into view. This fuelled further excitement as we saw the encroaching patch of white snow amongst the iceberg sea. What a sight! We got the scenic (and now sunny!) route in as we flew around the Fildes peninsular and Chilean Frei Marsh airfield in preparation to land, spotting the orange, red and grey buildings of the Antarctic Russian, Chilean, Uruguayan and Chinesebases dotted below. I was amazed at how smooth the landing was (though of course we had skis to land on the thick snow) and we were lucky there was no wind to blow us around. A perfect window in the Antarctic weather.

As we landed the international welcome committee appeared almost out of nowhere to greet us. We donned the rest of our Antarctic gear, sunglasses to protect our eyes from the dazzling white landscape, and got off the planeamidst a flurry of excited welcomes and handshakes, cameras snapping and approaching skidoos and extra hands to help unload the cargo.

For everyone on the Fildes Peninsular the arrival of a plane is a huge cause for celebration as with each plane comes fresh food and supplies – and new (or returning) faces which is a great reason for excitement for those who have been overwintering for months on end. Our plane was in fact the first plane to arrive at Bellingshausen this season and so our arrival marked the very welcome and awaited end of winter and start of summer and so waseven more reason for celebration for the Russians. Skidoos and snow vehicles transported the cargo to Bellingshausen. Some people hopped on but some of us walked from the landing strip by the sea at the western side of Fildes Peninsular across to Bellingshausen in the protected Ardley cove at the eastern of Fildes. There we awaited news of a pickup from Jubany but heard the weather was too bad in Potter Cove for the Jubany zodiac to make the journey round to collect us. Despite being a glorious sunny afternoon when we arrived (but cold – I couldn’t keep my gloves off for very long to take photographs!) when we arrived the weather soon started to turn with dark clouds looming at the other end of the cove. Bellingshausen (and Chilean Villa de las Estrellas and Escudero base) are located in by the “beach” in Ardley Cove but beyond this, further east, round to Potter Cove the sea is exposed and and can be treacherous.

So we were welcomed into Bellingshausen for the night and shown to our accommodation, a new building and very comfortable. My room has a picturesque view of the grey orthodox church on top of the hill (the only church in Antarctica). Remarkably there is a mobile telephone signal here so I managed to send an obligatory “I’m in Antarctica” text back home. A celebratory meal and welcome from the Russian Commander, Bulat, marked the start of the summer and food and wine were plentiful – fresh salad, pork, crab stick salad, potato frittata filled with meat, pizza, sashimi salmon, anchovy and egg on toast, tangerine jelly and cherry macaroons. Sixteen people are in Bellingshausen, including the cook, priest, two of the Russians who were on the plane, and one woman. Dinner entertainment was a nostalgic CD mix of 80s music provided by the cook. After dinner entertainment was provided by Alexi the photographer, one of the Russians flying on to Novo, who showed us spectacular photos from his travels around the Antarctic, Russia, the Arctic, and Kamchatka, with photos ranging from all types of aircraft to penguins, seals, polar bears, mountains and smouldering volcanoes.

To fly or not to fly

I met Dirk (Alfred Wegener Institute logistics) this morning and we found out we might be flying in a few hours time instead of waiting until tomorrow as originally planned. Panic stations all round as we quickly packed in anticipation of being told the decision and given a short window to get to the airport.

We met with the pilots an hour or so later only to be told, after much deliberation, that no, the weather is not good to land. Punta is windy but otherwise a beautiful sunny day; we were shown the webcam at Teniente Marsh (King George Island) and it is a completely different story there – grey fog and snow and, basically, not much to see at all – and with strong winds at 90 degrees to the landing strip this could blow us off when trying to land. After hearing the weather updates I was relieved when we were told we would not fly today after all but will wait to see what the next few hours bring. The next flight update will be with the pilot at 0730 tomorrow, potentially leaving at 0800 – weather permitting …

Hanging out in Punta

Some last minute shopping to be done before setting off to the South Shetland Islands. Steve has joked at how I have managed to fit everything into my bag (I am a walking outdoor shop/pharmacy etc.) but I did forget one thing – my gaitors! So I set on my mission to buy some. After a bit of searching we found La Cumbre, complete with energetic Chilean shop assistants dancing and singing at the top of their voices to the radio. They were very friendly and helpful, despite laughing at me struggling to discuss the technical details of outdoor clothing in my rusty Spanish (which they thought was funny because I sounded Spanish and not Chilean)! There was interest in where Steve and I were from, where we are going and what we are doing. And when – it seems the main point to note here is that it is very windy and the weather is not great for flying so no travel plans further south can be set in stone.

We made the customary visit to Magellan’s statue to rub and/or kiss the toe of the Patagon native. This is done to ensure that (a) you will return to Patagonia and/or (b) that you will return safely from Antarctica. I rubbed his toe the last time I was here and have returned. This time, with my trip to Antarctica imminent I made sure I gave a few pecks and a massage for good measure.

The journey to Punta

I met Steve (British Antarctic Survey; BAS) at Heathrow (1 flight down, 4 to go). The highlight of the many hours in the air was flying across the Andes to Santiago (early morning flight 4) and on down to Punta (flight 5). Flying over the Andes towards Punta on such a clear day was incredible, even more so when the Captain announced that in twenty minutes we would be flying past Volcan Hudson (1,600 km south of Santiago) which had just started erupting one hour earlier (that means just as we were taking off)! I thought I’d misheard but sure enough, there out of the window we saw the ash cloud rising and as the news spread the whole plane became a hive of activity and Chilean chatter as everyone peered out of the windows to see the spectacle below. Nearing the end of our 40 hour journey this excitement soon woke us up.

On arrival in Punta we were met by Agunsa. Later we ate in La Luna – the restaurant where, three years ago when on our honeymoon Steve (husband) and I met Steve (BAS) and other colleagues by chance one December evening, as you do. Punta might be at the southern tip of Chile but it’s a hub of activity, and a small world in terms of links with Antarctica – the hotel is full of people waiting for the weather window to continue their journey to Antarctica, whether to the South Shetlands, Halley, Rothera, Novo etc. A day or two for us to wait before our flight to the South Shetlands – currently scheduled for Sunday – weather permitting …

Final hours before take off …

Checked in, bags packed and only a few hours until I start the first leg of the journey to southern Chile. A door to door journey time of almost 40 hours lies ahead on my route from Newcastle via Frankfurt, Madrid and Santiago to Punta Arenas. I am already looking forward to some respite in Punta before the final leg of the journey to Jubany at the weekend!

I have no idea what internet access will be like during my time away but will update this when I can!

The research

In October-December 2011 I am taking part in an IMCOAST ( field campaign via collaborations with the British Antarctic Survey, the Alfred Wegener Institute for Polar and Marine research, and the Argentine Antarctic Institute.

I am a Senior Research Associate in the School of Geography, Politics and Sociology at Newcastle University, UK. My research focuses on the use of biomarkers (“molecular fossils”) for reconstructing past environmental and climatic change using lake sediment archives and with the main focus on the Quaternary (the last 2.6 million years). Examination of the molecular remains of organisms (e.g. plants, algae, bacteria) in lake sediments can tell us what was living in the lake in the past and thus what the environment and climate was like.

My interest in Antarctica focuses on providing new information on how temperature and precipitation have changed in the South Atlantic region of the Southern Ocean, in particular over the past 5000 years. By studying the impact natural warming has had on climatically significant areas around the world, such as the Antarctic and sub-Antarctic region, we will be able to better understand the impact that ‘global warming’ may have in the future.