EPFL scientists head to Antarctica to study snow and icecaps

Les données hydrométéorologiques en Antarctique sont encore relativement rares. © C. Watson / Davis Station

Les données hydrométéorologiques en Antarctique sont encore relativement rares. © C. Watson / Davis Station

EPFL scientists will soon be heading off to Antarctica, where they will spend four months collecting reams of meteorological data at Australia’s Davis research station. You can follow their progress on the school’s blog: EPFL Out There.

A post-doc researcher and two PhD students, all in environmental engineering, will spend the months of November 2018 to February 2019 at Australia’s Davis research station on the Antarctic coast. They will set up a weather station and take samples to better understand the unique phenomena related to snowfall and to snowflake sublimation by polar winds. Throughout the experience, the scientists will post regular updates on EPFL Out There, a blog devoted entirely to EPFL research expeditions: #SnowInAntarctica.

Very few hydrometeorological data have been collected on Antarctica, but this expedition will change that. It will indirectly help measure the effects of climate change in this region by examining the behavior of the snowfall that creates icecaps.

This project was selected through a competition within EPFL’s School of Architecture, Civil and Environmental Engineering (ENAC). But this isn’t ENAC’s first foray to Antarctica. During the 2015 and 2016 Antarctic summers, ENAC researchers installed a weather radar at France’s Dumont d’Urville station on the Antarctic coast. That expedition, documented on EPFL Out There (#FallingIce), gave the team valuable experience in setting up research instruments in Antarctica.

Then, in 2016, ENAC researchers built a weather station at the Princess Elisabeth research station, located further inland. And in 2017 an expedition was sent to the Syowa research station on an island off the shore of Antarctica; this ongoing project is being carried out in association with Japanese scientists.

Snowfall microphysics

The first EPFL student to head to Davis will be Josué Gehring, who will leave on Sunday, 14 October for two months. His trip will take 18 days: a 28-hour flight to Tasmania followed by a 16-day boat ride. Gehring is a PhD student at the Environmental Remote Sensing Laboratory (LTE), headed by Alexis Berne, and specializes in using weather radars to research the microphysics of snowfall.

His first task will be to install a weather radar at Davis and collect data. The radar will operate throughout the Antarctic summer. Gehring will also set up a rain gauge to measure precipitation volumes and a multi-angle snowflake camera – a device that can take three high-resolution photos of a snowflake at the same time.

Once the data are collected, Gehring will compare them with data he collected during a research expedition in the South Korean mountains last winter, not far from the PyeongChang Olympic Winter Games. You can read more about this expedition on EPFL Out There: #SnowfallInKorea.

Snowflake sublimation

Post-doc Franziska Gerber will arrive at Davis at roughly the same time as Gehring. Gerber is conducting her post-doc research at EPFL’s Laboratory of Cryospheric Sciences (CRYOS), headed by Michael Lehning. At Davis, she will install two instruments to analyze snowflake sublimation by polar winds. One will count snowflakes, while the other will measure air turbulence and water evaporation. This information will let her calculate the flow of snowflakes hitting the ground and the flow of sublimated vapor in the air, and determine how much snow is sublimated by the wind versus how much lands on the ground. Her instruments will remain at the station and collect data over an entire year, including during the Antarctic winter.

This won’t be Gerber’s first experience in the extreme cold. She was recently in Siberia for a research project carried out jointly by EPFL and the WSL Institute for Snow and Avalanche Research (SLF). Fellow CRYOS post-doc Annelen Kahl posted updates about this expedition on EPFL Out There: #SiberianSnowpack.

Comparing data

The final student to reach Davis will be Alfonso Ferrone, who will arrive in mid-December 2018 and stay for two months. Also a PhD student at LTE, Ferrone is an expert in Antarctic precipitation and already spent a full year at the Concordia research station on the Antarctic plateau. He will collect data at Davis and compare them with data previously collected at Dumont d’Urville.

The three EPFL scientists will work alongside over 100 other researchers at the station, which is one of the biggest in Antarctica. Apart from this fantastic research opportunity, the scientists are looking forward to meeting the penguins living on the nearby coast and posting their adventures on the blog.