Øystein in Antarctica

I am norwegian doctor who worked as expedition doc on the Antarctic research station Troll for the summer season 2007-2008. NB: This blog is intended as a personal and ecological account from The Ice Planet - fully independent of the Norwegian Polar Institute, their official web page being: npweb.npolar.no

01 Apr 2008

Leaving before nightfall

As you probably guessed, I'm now back from Antarctica. The mite samples have been carefully delivered in Stellenbosch.

To compensate for the extreme delay in posting this final entry, I present you with some photos from the russian Novolazarevskaya station from the flight out. Antarctica offers some interesting human landscapes as well.

There were some amazing vehicles lying around the "transit terminal" - the friendly tent camp where we were served excellent russian soup while waiting for our flight off the continent.

Monstertruck Breshnev-style.
(If anyone knows the history of this bubble-tyred snowmobile, please let me know!)

Funky skidoo.

Winter warrior.

The pet south polar skua in camp, regularly fed foodscraps by the russian crewmembers.
Not strictly in tune with environmental protocol, but who am I to pass judgement on russian station workers who in some cases have spent 10 (ten!) years - straight - on the ice. Domestifying a hungry bird for company can't be the worst outlet for that length of ice-solation.

At least these guys can go home next november.
This is the norwegian overwintering crew, picture taken on the day we flew out.
It's an impressive gang, and I wish them all the best in the cold and progressively darker months to come.
(from the left:)
Heidi, cook.
Sigurd, mechanic.
Annika, my excellent replacement, the overwintering doctor, gynecologist back home.
Geir, station technician, plumber back home.
Atle, station chief and research technician, travelling satelite antenna engineer back home.
Vidar, electrician.

Goodbye to Troll station and the Ice planet.

I could say a lot about what my stay at the station and the explorations of the surrounding icescapes meant to me - what a profound experience it was. Going through my blog, I realize it is all those little things I have written about along the way, combined, that best describe my love and enthusiasm for the place and the landscape, and for the people and creatures that make it their brief and permanent home.

26 Feb 2008

Lucky last trip

Out again, looking for any non-bird animals I could find. I took the snowmobile roughly 8 km into the relatively warm area on the north side of the Jutulsessen massive,well shaded from the catabatic winds coming down from the plateau. There's two big frozen "lakes" here, never fully in a liquid state, still flattened over time because of partial icemelt and small creeks forming right below the blue ice surface. It's autumn now, never above freezing even at ground level, and I couldn't see any liquid water anywhere.

The picture shows the most sheltered bay in the lake.
I went to this particular spot because a norwegian biologist found some mites here in 1977.

Initially there was no sign of any vegetation, but I found two big garnet crystals instead. 
When biology fails, geology comes to the rescue.

The whole area was covered in moraine, with some larger boulders in between. This lone sentry is a south polar skua, several of which were nesting in the area. Further down the slope I saw a skua chick, as big as its parents, just more fluffy, and still not able to fly, running off in panic as I closed in. The adults took turns screeching and charging towards me until I moved to a respectful distance.

I found some tiny patches of green algae under the rocks in the area, but no mites.

The search continued. I went on to the eastern lake, going all the way to into a narrow bay, surrounded by steep cliffs on three sides.

Here too I was greeted by skuas (one sitting on the big boulder in the distance), but this time I think they were mainly curious (/hungry - most of the antarctic petrels - their food - have left for the ocean already). I started climbind the scree slope, targeting the solid bedrock surface higher up the mountainside.

As the boulders grew bigger I discovered several small patces of moss (black dry dots in the picture. No, really!). This should be premium habitat for mites and springtails. 15 rocks and 2 wet eyes later - still nothing. Same with the next 5 moss fields. Where were the animals hiding? I had gone to the possibly most sheltered location in all of Jutulsessen, on a sunny day - extensive vegetation all over the place, at least by East Antarctic standards - and not a single mite.

I stepped on and broke a particularly crumbly rock, frost thaw being more to blame, and saw this green line extending 1 cm into the rock: algae following in the footsteps of the water.

100m up the cliffside, scree gave way to solid gneissic bedrock (dark rocks on the left). The barren slope above would not yield much vegetation, but here, at the very edge, I found what appeared to be the last patch of moss, and halfheartedly started flipping rocks over. 

First and second rock - nothing. Third time lucky: as I turned it over, I immediately noticed something moving: a single mite trying to escape towards - who knows what, as I had just ruined it's whole world anyway. No time to worry about ethics - I quickly threw it into the etanol vial. 7 more mites (family? neighbours?) went the same way, and no more mites were to be found - not there or anywhere else in the area.

It kind of felt like I just discovered - then quickly wiped out - a single newfound colony of Martians.

Hopefully I won't feel the same way about eradicationg microscopic lifeforms back home, as being a doctor could turn into more of a moral dilemma than it really needs to.

25 Feb 2008

A nice but completely miteless walk

Heading up the sunny slope of Grjotlia, feeling very optimistic about finding some neat terrestrial invertebrate lifeforms to sample.

I know from earlier walks that this particular slope has a rich lichen vegetation, amongst them the black kind that the mites supposedly like best. It's also a sunny day - warm mites move quicker and should be easier to spot.

Apparently not my lucky day: no movement what so ever - in, under, or anywhere within 2 meters of the lichen.

The dominant lichen on this hill is the orange crustose type. It seems to prefer cracks on top of big, flat boulders. Absolutely no sign of mites, though. Getting slightly frustrated now.

This snow petrel chick cheers me up, and I start digging around the guano and algae piling up underneath the nest, but to no avail- absolutely nothing that even resembles a small creep.

One of many empty-handed returns to the snowmobile. 

The last party

Saturday we had a big party to mark the end of the summer season. In 2 days only 6 will stay behind. We marked the occasion by setting two new Jakuzzi records - 19 people in the hot tub at the same time, and around 17 of them stayed in the tub for 7 hours straight. Personal space requirements went out as 8 bottles of champagne went in.

I chose this particularly blurry picture in case anyone from the team wants to go for american president.

24 Feb 2008

Walk with a purpose

I'm about 4 km from Troll, looking back towards the station from within a lowlying moraine field. It's a partially overcast day, relatively warm at -6 degrees, but it feels colder because of the wind. Walking amongst these boulders for half an hour, there's no sign of what I'm looking for. I've chosen this site because the northwest-facing location gives maximum exposure to sunlight, hence more heat, more snowmelt and humidity, and more chance of finding life.

Even still - the rocks, the patches of sand between them, the gravel, the small shelters underneath the bigger rocks, the small meltponds forming there - all seem lifeless.

I decide to try try for slightly higher ground, and head towards the moraine-covered slope below the small glacier cap. As I approach the hillside, the winds drop, and there's less snow cover.

Happy with this decision, I start searching for the largest boulders, because bigger boulders means more stability, and more stability means sufficient time for lichen to grow and establish itself.

Finally - a small patch of lichen of just the right type - leafy, black, and crumbly - an "epilithic foliose lichen". To speciate it properly, someone with more than a hobby-based interest in biology would have to examine it under microscope.

Even still (I enjoy guessing) - I think this lichen might be called Umbilicaria decussata. It's not restricted to the Antarctic - cousins of this lichen actually grow back in Norway, and can be used as emergency food if you just happen to be stranded on a barren island or mountain without provisions, and are feeling desperate, adventurous, or both.

In any case, lichen tasting is not what I've come for, either, but the small patch of lichen means I'm at least in the right microhabitat now.

I start turning rocks over, inspecting their undersides carefully with my hand lens, small brush and vial of ethanol at the ready. First rock: nothing. Second: is that something moving? Yes - along a small crack in the rock, a tiny creature, red legs and black body, barely half a millimetre across, walking sluggishly along, it's world suddenly (and literally) turned upside down. With shaking hands I scrape it up with the brush, and condemn it to quick death by alcohol. Success!

This is what I've come for - in this case I've found a tiny mite, but actually anything small that moves would be interesting. After collecting two vials of 10 mites each, I head back to station and put one under the microscope.

Most probably this is mite is called Eupodes angardi. It's one of 10 or so species of mites in all of Dronning Maud Land. In addition there are 2 species of springtails, another group of terrestrial microarthropods.

So - have I gone crazy in my search for life in an apparently lifeless place? Regulations about wildlife collection tossed out the window, just to satisfy my own overgrown curiosity?

Actually, I'm allowed.
This mite is going to the University of Stellenbosch in South Africa, for closer examination and DNA analysis. Through a happy mix of coincidence and me not being able to keep my mouth shut, I've managed to recruit myself as assistant microarthropod collector on behalf of Jen Lee, a South African biologist who has been sampling mites and springtails around SANAE station this summer.

Her project is part of a big International Polar Year research project called "Aliens in Antarctica". The project wants to assess the risks to Antarctic biodiversity with increasing human traffic around the continent.

The mite above is not an alien, but a resident mite carefully adapted to the freezing environment, living off the sparse detritus from the black lichen. But, theoretically, mites could get transported between nunataks on the clothes and shoes of researchers or adventure tourists, and both inter-nunatak and intra-species biodiversity could be at risk.

Before someone goes out and examines these fragile ecosystems, by physically sampling these tiny animals from different locations, and by genetic analysis calculates their relatedness, we don't know much about this risk at all.

I'll be on the search for mites and springtails in the areas around Troll up until leaving (running out of time!).
Nothing better than having a good, even scientitic, excuse for goofing around with my magnifying glass. 

18 Feb 2008


Yesterday I was exploring Nonshøgda, the low mountain immediately to our north, looking for life both tiny and small. The weather was splendid - blue skies and around -7 degrees, slightly unexpected because over the last weeks we've have had a gradual yet marked change in light and temperature: we have sunsets now, night temperatures drop below -20, and most of our bird neighbours seem to have left us. 

The last transport train, number 8, approaching Troll. Every last container has now been shipped to station from the ice shelf. Fuel, food and other supplies for the 6 overwinterers - it's all in place. The main mission for the summer season has been accomplished. We're now wrapping up for the season, doing building repairs and improvements, and in my case the overlap period with my replacement, the overwintering doctor, has begun.

In 10 days I'll be back in Cape Town with the rest of the summer team.
It's been a fantastic 3 months, possibly life-changing, and I can't believe how fast it all went.

Climbing the hill further, I came upon a small patch of green, almost salady stuff, scattered amongst the rubble beneath some big boulders. This is a multicellular algae, I think belonging to the genus Prasiola. It usually grows in small cracks like this, small wind-deposits of snow providing liquid water for the brief summer months.

Suddenly - a thin creak, sounding like old scissors, just 1 meter further up, from between the boulders:

They're not easy to spot, these tiny snow petrel chicks. He was sitting in a small "cave", generations of guano piled up by the entrance, small bits of which provide plenty of fertilization for the Prasiolas below.

No sign of parents. With a healthy-looking chick like this, they are probably not far away, either on their way to, or coming back from the ocean, crops bulging with supernutritious krill-oil. The skuas will not be able to pull the chick out of his narrow hiding place.

In a few years this chick might be greeting newly arrived station crew members, while busily squabbling for the best nest site and some female attention - warm childhood memories coupled with genetic conditioning will have brought him back here, to within meters of his own birthplace.


4 km north of the station is the low hill called Klovningen. The area north of it is heavily crevassed because of a glacier fall squeezing by. Immediately before the cliff face lies a massive wind-hole, called "Klovningsdella". It's not visible before the ice practically disappears under your feet (belts, in our case). You can enter this "secret valley" on foot from the south side only, elsewhere you would need climbing gear. It's a beautiful spot, with a flat blue ice "lake" glimmering on the valley floor, and a sizeable colony of snow petrels in the sunbathed and wind-protected scree slope.

These are not snow petrels. 

We found a total of 54 empty fuel drums in the wind-hole - all of them blown here across the blue ice from the station during the november hurricane. Most of the barrels had aggregated in heaps under big rocks like this one. The rock seems to be resting on a pedestal, because the ice column immediately beneath it is shaded from the melting rays of the sun.

We stuffed the barrels into a net, and pulled it up the steep slope by belt wagon. 

2 seconds after this picture was taken, as the net was hanging right under the edge, the rope gave in to the snow friction.  Ken, our expedition leader (small figure in the bottom right corner) turned his head, saw 30 barrels tumbling down the slope towards him, and ran for it.

Next attempt, using a pulley system with 2 belt wagons and a crane on the edge, went without unpleasant surprises.