A fascinating trip to Antarctica

Working at the edge of the Antarctic plateau. Luckily, the typically strong winds were absent on that day (Photo © Preben Van Overmeiren, Ghent University).

Working at the edge of the Antarctic plateau. Luckily, the typically strong winds were absent on that day (Photo © Preben Van Overmeiren, Ghent University).

Researchers from EPFL have been joining the Belgian Antarctic Research Expedition to Princess Elisabeth Antarctica Station every year since 2016. Armin Sigmund, a PhD student in the Laboratory of Cryospheric Sciences, recently participated in the expedition to study snow-atmosphere interactions. After coming back from the extreme and impressive environments of Antarctica, he provided insights into his first trip to the polar regions.

Uncertainties before the journey

To reach Antarctica in the exceptional year of 2020, we had to manage additional challenges. Until my arrival in Antarctica at the end of November 2020, it was always a bit uncertain whether my trip was going to take place because of the risk of getting infected by the new coronavirus. Due to the limited medical care in Antarctica, we had to do everything to avoid bringing the virus to this remote continent.

After two weeks of quarantine in South Africa and multiple tests for Covid-19, we were ready for the flight to Antarctica. However, we still had to be patient because the flight was postponed due to bad weather conditions. Finally, the exciting day arrived and a big cargo plane brought us to the cold and white continent.

Arrival in Antarctica

I was particularly excited because I had never been to the polar regions before. Although the weather was sunny, I was expecting cold temperatures. So I put on my warmest clothes before leaving the plane at the Novolazarevskaya (Novo) runway in East Antarctica. From there, we were to continue the journey with a smaller plane. It was a good decision to wear the warmest clothes because a strong and cold wind welcomed us.

I was fascinated by the streams of drifting snow, which moved quickly along the snow surface. This process is at the heart of our research and it reminded me of the goals of my trip. The transport of snow particles by the wind increases the amount of snow that is removed from the Antarctic ice sheet by sublimation (transfer to water vapour). An important goal of our project is to quantify the contribution of sublimation to the surface mass balance of Antarctica, which can help to improve predictions of sea level rise. To achieve this goal, we need both simulations and measurements, and performing the measurements was the mission of my trip.

Impressive landscape

During the flight from Novo to Princess Elisabeth Antarctica Station, the plane window offered a fantastic view on the huge ice sheet. From time to time, crevasses were visible below us and impressive mountains appeared at some distance.

The Princess Elisabeth Antarctica Station is located in a nice scenery with mountains towards the South and a flat snow surface towards the North. Unfortunately, we were too far away from the coast to see penguins. Nevertheless, we observed other animals that choose to live at that remote location: Birds, which find a protected home in the mountains.

Life in Antarctica

The Belgian Princess Elisabeth Antarctica Station is a zero emission station operated by the International Polar Foundation (IPF). Thanks to solar and wind energy, the rooms were warm and comfortable and freshwater was made available by melting snow. I enjoyed the fresh and delicious food that was prepared every day.

As we had all gone through a quarantine before the trip, there was no need for wearing face masks and and avoiding social gatherings in Antarctica. It was nice: In this regard, life was more normal in Antarctica than at home in Europe. Another interesting experience was the absence of the sunset. There was daylight all the time although the station was in the shadow of a mountain for a while in the late evening.

Fieldwork at the “end of the world”

In the beginning of my three-week stay, it was sunny and the wind velocity was low. This weather was ideal for taking high-resolution aerial photographs of the snow surface using a professional mapping drone. In combination with GPS measurement, we use these photographs to quantify changes in surface elevation over periods of several days or a whole year.

While being in the field, it was important to protect the face with sun screen because of the particularly intense UV radiation in Antarctica. Even on cloudy days, it was possible to get a bad burn.

Four years ago, my colleagues had installed two automatic measurement stations to collect weather- and snow-related data throughout the year. My task was to relocate one of these stations, to connect it to the more reliable power system of the Princess Elisabeth Antarctica Station, and to install additional sensors. I was happy that I could rely on the great help of other expedition members.

The other measurement station is located at the edge of the Antarctic plateau, approximately 40 kilometres away from the Princess Elisabeth Antarctica. The conditions at that site are usually more extreme because it is colder and directly exposed to the katabatic winds coming from the interior of the continent.

On the way to the measurement station, we travelled through the mountains and enjoyed a lot of fantastic views. The first time we went there, the weather was not as extreme as I expected. The temperature was about -17 °C and luckily the wind was rather calm. We made good progress with lifting the measurement system and replacing the solar panel and the batteries of the station.

During the following week, the wind was too strong and the visibility was too low for a second trip the distant measurement station. Luckily, the weather was favourable during the last few days of my stay. So we went out there again to replace the wind generator and resume the measurements.

However, there was an unexpected problem with the wiring of the instruments. Unfortunately, two instruments were still not powered, when we left the measurement station in the evening.

I was nervous because my departure was approaching and there was only one more chance to travel to the measurement station. The following morning, when we arrived at the edge of the Antarctic plateau, I got an impression of the typical windy and harsh conditions at this location. Finally, I managed to power the last two instruments by connecting one wire in a different way. What a relief!

Overall, it was a nice and exciting time in Antarctica and I am grateful for the support from the expedition team, from my colleagues at EPFL and the Institute for Snow and Avalanche Research (SLF) in Davos, and from the Swiss Polar Institute.


The field trip was supported by funds from the Swiss Polar Institute (Polar Access Fund 2020).