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

28 Dec 2007

For lack of proper scientists

In the evening hours, after work, I've had several hikes up Trollhaugen ("Troll Hill") at the back of the station. What I enjoy most on these walks is looking at the breeding snow petrels (they have eggs now!) with my binoculars. Sometimes big flocks of antarctic petrel soar overhead as well, but they never linger, always seeming to be going somewhere else - they might breed on some of the higher peaks in the Jutulsessen nunatak. The south polar skuas are also more active now - when not harassing and outright preying on the snow petrels, they enjoy taking baths and socialise in the meltwater pools. (See Geir's homepage for some awesome skua pictures - link on the right)
Sometimes I find treasures too. The quartzite rocks in the picture first looked as if they contained some sort of green mineral, but on closer examination with my hand lens the green stuff appeared as several interconnected and fragile threads, clinging to the surface of the stone.

Luckily , there's a simple microscope in my office. This was the first time I tried it, as there hasn't been any need for medical microbiological investigations here yet (surprise!).
Justifying my activities with the Quest For Knowledge, To Boldly Go.. etc etc, while really just nerding around, I collected some of the rocks in small specimen bags, scraped off some of the green stuff and stuck it on a microscope slide with a drop of water.

This picture was taken at 40x magnification, my small camera lens squeezed onto the ocular.

Alien lifeforms!
And that's about as far as I got with my diagnosis. The stuff is (again, surprise!) green, seems to be composed of single cells, some of them sticking together.

Discussion: It appears as if groups of single celled chlorophyll-containing organisms eke out a living on our neighbouring rocks. On previous expeditions, researchers have found green algae in water samples from our meltwater pools and the surrounding blue ice.
I haven't found any articles about algae on dry land here, though...

Until a biologist, or professor of latin, accidentally stumbles over this blog:

Chlorococcaceae Oysteinii

26 Dec 2007

God jul!

And to those so inclined: merry christmas!

Jul is usually an occasion when we celebrate (that we just passed!) the darkest day of the year. Perhaps a bit boreocentric, but it feels weird celebrating Jul here, with midnight sun, and what I normally think of as "easter" weather : only 5 degrees minus, clear blue skies, almost no wind, wet snow and slippery ice. But Jul has been different, in so many ways, here.

The 24th started like any day, celebrating the Holy Barrel. The station is floating over with fresh fuel drums, so our old and empty drums need pressing, before being stacked in containers, then shipped out, next summer. Push the lever, barrel gets flat.


After. Quite satisfying.

We've worked our way through most of the traditional norwegian dishes - on juleaften (24th) we had svineribbe (pork ribs with sauerkraut, gravy and potatoes - east norwegian tradition) - on the 25th we had pinnekjøtt (salted & smoked mutton ribs - from west Norway), and today we had lutefisk ("lye fish", a kind of caustic gelatinous way of preparing cod - an aquired taste even for north norwegians).
We drink juleøl (dark beer) and akvavit (a kind of schnapps spiced with caraway).
Note anomaly - curtains trying to block out the bright sunlight.

The traditional plastic tree (juletre). In my mythology, the star on top of the juletre symbolizes the (returning) sun. Although I won't push the point.

Yesterday was off, so there was time for a hike in the splendid weather (also see top image). We're coming down from the top. Note the moraine field to the right - you can almost imagine the glacier retreating like the ebbing sea from a rocky beach. Only in this case the "ocean" creates the beach as it retreats from it.

Here geology and biology have, unusually for Antarctica, made good allies.
The hole was initially weathered by frost-thaw, chipping loose the rocks and sand, thereafter the rocks have been whirling around in the strong wind, further grinding out the hole, in a self-perpetuating mechanism. Meltwater must have gathered in the hole too, giving what little sustenance was needed for the orange lichen to move in and establish itself.

21 Dec 2007

Crevasse training

Only 10 min drive from the station, by BV 206, is an outlet glacier, a kind of "waterfall" in ice coming down from an even larger glacier, "Fjellimellom", which is a massive glacier, akin to a "river", coming straight from the polar ice cap. Where this icefall empties into our more stagnant blue ice glacier "lake", a series of crevasses form due to the stretching caused by the difference in ice speed. The crevasses are mostly hidden beneath fragile snowbridges. It's unsafe to travel here without safety ropes and the knowledge of how to use them. Yesterday we learnt how.

Jens, our expedition leader, is also a professional mountaineering/glacieering trainer (spending the other half of the year in Spitsbergen, in the high Arctic), and gave us a course. We spent the first half of the day playing with ropes, carabines, and improvised pulley systems, then went to explore a 15m+ deep crevasse.

Jens had marked the location with a pole from the year before, so it was only a matter of digging down 1m or so to get into the crevasse.

It looks small from above.

Cathedral of ice beneath. I'm now standing on a snow bridge. Later it collapsed partially, and I swinged like a pendulum into the wall. Well secured, it was a small matter (except for my biceps muscles..) to climb back up the rope.

Siv, one of our cooks, with more secure footing. The helmet proved useful, as Jens was digging a new hole down through the crevasse roof while we were down there, causing snow and ice to rain from above.

Håvard (our logistics man) checking to see if I'd frozen fast. I was taking a breather on my way up - hanging in free air.

18 Dec 2007

78 degrees south

Finally I get to do what I came for!
After one month of pressing garbage, driving big machines, moving barrels, and discussing the varying fuel-consumption from pulling different sled types, I'd almost forgotten that I'm a doctor. After all, I wouldn't be here if I wasn't.

2 days ago, in the evening, the Iridium satelite phone rang, as it usually does around 9pm - the South Pole Traverse expedition reporting in.
They have a medical problem.

The expedition is a norwegian-american collaboration and part of the International Polar Year (IPY) effort - quite expensive and high profile. (Link to the IPY traverse:top right corner. Check their expedition diary for an account of the visit). The main scientific yield is drilling for ice cores (small bubbles trapped in the ice tell the story of past athmospheres and temperatures) and by means of fancy sonars and radars form a 3d map of the ground deep down under the ice cap. They might discover lakes under the ice - similar to quasi-famous Lake Vostok (under the russian Antarcic base Vostok - the coldest place on earth). If these lakes contain (microbial) life, and we develop a technology to detect it without contamination (robots?) not only would these extremophile organisms be exciting all by themselves, but the technology could then be developed further to help discover life on ice-covered planet-moons like Europa (orbiting Jupiter).
This is still science fiction, of course. And therefore very exciting.

They're going all the way from Troll to the South pole. Currently they have been stranded at 78 degrees south due to mechanical problems - the long journey across the polar plateau in 30 degrees minus, pulling scientific equipment, fuel and living modules, is hard on the belt wagons.

In addition to this, the chief driller of the expedition has had an accident - an apparently minor cut in the finger refuses to heal after 1 week, it is still bleeding, and there are metal fragments contaminating the wound. There is no doctor with the expedition, "only" Kjetil, a norwegian mechanic/fireman/paramedic (extremely competent at all three!). He's been struggling to treat the patient for a week, and quite impressively managed to anaesthesise the finger and remove several fragments, but has now decided that she needs assessment by a doctor.
She is a vital member of the crew, and will not leave the expedition.

That means flying me in. 1200 km away, 4 hours flight, up to the top of the south polar plateau - furthest south, and probably furthest away from anything at all, that I'll ever be. An emergency Basler flight was set up, planned as a round trip in 1 day.

A flight to supply mechanical parts was already scheduled in 2 days, but we brought the stuff on this flight, for convenience. The big metallic thing is a gearbox. Next to it a "differential" (don't ask me!).

The orange backpack contains emergency medical equipment (I always bring that one when receiving flights). The orange briefcase is my "field pharmacy", also holding equipment for minor surgery. Between the two, coffee and toilet paper, for the traverse team.

Last speck of "land", briefly after take-off. After this, 4 hours across a vast, white nothingness.

No pressure cabin in the Basler. Cruising at 13000 feet, after 1 hour I started feeling short of breath, lightheaded and dizzy. After consulting with the pilot, and trying to rule out psychosomatic disorders or alcohol withdrawal, I diagnosed myself with altitude sickness. I was offered oxygen and the symptoms were dispelled within minutes.

Flying in at "point 92". The 12 expedition members have been stranded here, halfway to the South Pole, for 5 days. The surrounding landscape is quite featureless. Right after touchdown, the plane got stuck in a heap of snow. The canadian pilots laughed at the incident, and organized for a belt wagon to pull the plane out.

Vehicles, a couple of living modules, scattered scientific equipment, the compulsory fuel drums. Plane in the background.

I visited on a particularly warm, sunny and windless day, only 10 degrees minus, so most of the expedition members were outside, basking in the sun.

A red module like the one in the picture was temporarily changed from kitchen/common room to sickbay. The patient was well, but her finger cut showed signs of infection, and remaining metal fragments, although unlikely, could not be completely ruled out (no portable x-ray-machine, sadly!) After giving block anaesthesia and disinfecting, I debrided the wound (cut away dead or dying bits), ruled out any major tissue damage, splinted the finger, and started a course of antibiotics. She seemed happy with the treatment, although not too happy about not being able to work for a week.

Before reboarding the plane the 2 pilots , flight attendant and me enjoyed a lunch with the expedition crew. An impressive gang, they were all very determined and optimistic about making it to the Pole. After receiving the spare parts, the crew set to work fixing the vehicles.

The Royal Flying Doctor's Service (Antarctica). Next to me a pile of garbage, also to be brought back to Troll.

Land O'hoi! The mountains look a lot less inpressive from the plateau (southern) side. From this angle they appear as a great dam holding back a sea of ice (which is exactly what they do).

Down towards Troll airstrip. Stabben (from previous blog entry fame) at the far end of the range. Medical field trip over!
Again, a strong feeling of privelige.

I talked to Kjetil, the IPY paramedic/mechanic, today - the chief driller is still doing fine, being well looked after, and the differentials are being installed. Both courtesy of himself.
He must be a very busy man.

The shelf - meeting the locals

I didn't have to wait long.
Right next to our trailer park, 100m from the ice edge, a colony of Adelie penguins were nesting. These small smoking-clad penguins come ashore during the Antarctic summer to breed, spending the rest of the year among the pack ice, eating krill. They were constantly scuffling around their little hill (actually on top of some iron scrap left from previous dockings), fighting over the best position, and stamping on each others eggs. They were very curious too, and liked to join in when we went outside our little hut to relieve ourselves.

A flock of Antarctic petrel ridge soaring along the shelf edge. The Antarctic petrel breeds far inland, in the mountains near Troll. This is their regular home, amongst ice and krill. Norwegian ortnithologists have done a substantial amount of research on these birds at the bird colony Svarthamaren (If I'm really, really lucky, I might get there later in the summer).

The worlds most southerly mammal, leisuring on the sea ice. He (?) didn't mind me walking all the way up to him - I sat there for a while, listening to his rumbling belly. The Weddell seal can dive to 700 m, holding its breath for over an hour. They are very adapted to the pack ice, and can keep breathing holes open during winter, by gnawing at the ice with their incisors.

Not minding me at all (I kept telling myself).

Wildlife encounter of my life coming up.
As I was watching the Weddell seal, 2 penguins came out of the water, belly-hopped unto the ice, and started waggling towards me. Twice the size of the Adelie penguin, and distinctly more regal in style and manner, I was face to face (okay, 2 m away!) with the Emperor. They act like they own the place, and in a way, they do. As everyone who watches french new age cinema documentaries know, these penguins breed during winter - on the ice - the males doing the hard work - incubating the egg on their feet. Here they are, next to the seal, and me.
Mission accomplished.

A third emperor came out of the water, and after some trumpeting and neck-waving, they walked off together.

The next day the ship arrived, and as it approached the shelf, the sea came alive with emperors apparently swimming for the safety of the ice. During the first day of offloading, 19 emperor penguins kept standing there, watching us, looking indignant.

The adelies didn't seem to mind, though.

Going back we got stuck in loose snow, just after crossing the hinge zone.
Our expedition leader celebrating.

The going got better as we climbed back up to 1200 m elevation. Great weather coming back, and has been, since. Yesterday we had above freezing for the first time this summer. Coming back to Troll a small lake had formed at the bottom of the hill. Getting out our beachwear soon.

The shelf - Ivan Papanin

After a few days delay, due to difficult sea-ice conditions, Ivan Papanin finally arrived. Firstly it rammed full speed into the sea ice below the shelf itself, to drop off 3 russians. After being picked up by us (snowmobiles can be taken out on the sea ice quite safely), they set to work drilling holes for the moorings. 1m deep holes did not prevent the moorings popping out on 3 occasions. We tried to keep away from the ropes.

The unloading has begun. The white containers hold big diesel tanks used to fuel our power station. The small rods along the ice edge is our rudimentary safety fence (mainly a psychological barrier...). Cooperating with the russian sailors, especially the guy steering the crane, was a big challenge with no common language, but hand waving and (incomprehensible) shouting got all the containers on "shore" without any accidents or injuries. Lucky me!

They claim the boat was built in 1991, but it felt, say, 30 years older. Rust everywhere, and a distinctly russian feel to everything (note the painting on the wall in the cantina). The unloading took nearly 3 days, so we had our meals on board. Hearty russian food. Sharing the table with us are a french filmteam making a documentary about Antarctica. They're also following the Belgian Antarctic Research Expedition in their construction of a new Antarctic station, also supplied by Ivan Papanin. Eager to proceed to their own docking site, the belgians were very helpful in unloading all our fuel drums (the heaviest part of the job!).

17 Dec 2007

The shelf - going down

2 days ago I came back from the shelf. I've been out 10 days. Some of the guys in our transport team have been out over 14 days. Coming back Troll station felt like a metropolis, with its showers, wide-screen TV, and personal space.

The shelf is where the inland ice gives way to the open sea. In summer, that is. During the 8 months of winter endless sheets of sea-ice would prevent safe docking and unloading of anything but the biggest ice-breakers.

This map shows the ice edge in relation to Troll, the red marks are our GPS waypoints on the journey down. A distance of approx 280 km, it took us 2 days down and 3 days back up. We spent several days at the shelf, first waiting for the russian cargo ship to arrive, then unloading it. We brought 12 containers back to Troll, but 10 more round trips are needed to bring all the cargo to base.

This is the Pinoh Everest vehicle used to pull the sleds and containers. My slightly more proletarian colleagues make fun of me for calling it a "car". It's a monster of a machine, but slow. Max speed with the 3-sled train attached is about 15 km/h. We bring lots of audiobooks and crisps.

Shortly after leaving Troll, we pass close by Stabben, pretending to be a smoking chimney.

The surroundings soon change to a white, trackless wasteland. This is Hellehallet, a gently sloping glacier, but getting more steep and crevassy in the so-called hinge zone (the area where the glacier floats out on the sea). Going through the hinge zone we're not allowed to leave the vehicles without safety ropes. The shelf ice is fairly safe to drive on, being several hundred meters thick. Worst case scenario is a big chunk of ice breaks loose, and we would be sailing north on a newly born iceberg.

The end of the ice planet. Temperature around -5 degrees, pleasant weather, blue ice shimmering in the sunlight. It's about 20 m down to the sea, and a strong current, so no skidoo-crossing close to the edge.

04 Dec 2007

Going to the shelf for 1-2 weeks

Tomorrow (5th dec) I'm joining 2 colleagues (part of the so called "transport team") for the 2.5 day trip down to the ice shelf (roughly 200 km away) The russian cargo ship Ivan Papanin (named after the russian polar explorer) will anchor up directly on the ice in a few days, and the winter team (and next years' scientific expeditions) depend on us getting the cargo to base before the end of summer. Endless stacks of fuel drums, tanks of diesel for the generators, containerloads of food and (hopefully, for me!) some medical supplies, will be towed on sleighs by our most powerful tracked vehicles - basically modified piste bashers.

Not being the most experienced machine-driver yet, my job will be to provide medical backup during the (potentially dangerous) off-loading, ensuring safety procedures are being followed (yeah, right!).

Don't tell anyone, but I'll also look for penguins. This time, proper antarctic ones.

During transport we'll sleep in small huts on the back of the Everests (as the vehicles are called). We'll bring a couple of primuses as backup. At the ice shelf we'll sleep in the ship. If I get tired from audio-books I can practice my russian on the way down.

I'll only be reachable by satelite phone from base while away, but will tell all about it when I'm back. It can take anything from 7-14 days, depending on how secure the interface between land-ice and sea-ice is, how long time we spend offloading, potential breakdowns, and how many penguins I find.

Field trip

2 days ago, I got (yet another) chance to satisfy my science-fetishism.
As already mentioned, a 2-man BAS (British Antarctic Survey) expedition is being conducted in our "neighbourhood"; starting with the Jutulsessen nunatak area. The team comprises german geologist Horst and anglo-swedish(?) field guide Suna (well used to icy environments after overwintering at the british Halley station, a very remote station floating on a massive glacier). Basically, they're skidoo-ing around the wilderness, collecting representative rocks from different areas and trying to avoid crevasses on the way. The rocks will later provide endless months of lab work for Horst (radiometric dating, composition analysis, etc, etc), and finally, a couple of years down the line, he'll hopefully be able to cast light on the differing theories on crust formation. He's very enthusiastic about it, and after spending an afternoon sampling the local area with the two of them, me too. Geology looses (some of) its nerdiness when enjoyed in the field, armed with a big hammer.

Horst happily hammering away.

Fresh piece of granite intrusion dike. If that doesn't impress you, imagine steaming hot magma flooding cracks in the crust from below, deep deep down in the earth, under immense pressures. Heavy.

Suddenly back in touch with our feminine side, we stopped to enjoy this impressive garnet crystal, embedded in the granite matrix.

Migmatite. The most common rock in our area, called Gjelsvikfjella - part of the Fimbulheimen mountain range. Migmatite is a borderline rock type between magmatic (=igneous) and metamorphic. The layering is due to immense pressures and temperatures, causing partial melting. When the white lines (leucosomes) melt even more, and join up in big white continuus blocks, they're called granite, which qualifies fully to be called metamorphic. What's left (the black, harder bits) will then be called restite.

Big chunks of restite inside the granite. Geological hand-lens for scale. Baffin boot not meant to be included.