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

03 Jan 2008


Four of us decided to start the new year with a 2 day leisure expedition to Svarthamaren, the bird colony nunatak about 100km east from here.
Luckily the decision was made some days earlier, well before the after effects of our new year's party dawned on us. We struggled out of bed to pack the snowmobiles and left by 2am.
Next to Svarthamaren ("black hammer") lies the small unmanned research station "Tor" (named after the hammer-wielding thunder god). The ornithologists have wrapped up most of their research there, so the station serves as a "holiday cabin" and getaway for the staff at Troll.

Small sleds were loaded with kerosene, mountaneering and safety gear (in case of falling into crevasses along the way), freeze-dried food, primus, and a tent.

I'm riding an old "Polaris" skidoo. A noisy but reliable 2 cylinder engine.
Working: the starter and the gas.
Not working: speedometer, windshield, brakes.
Incidents: a support wheel fell off on the way back (we realized it would run equally well without it)

The journey took 3,5 hours, luckily in nice sunny weather, across "Slithallet" and "Hellehallet" glaciers.
Along the way we passed the prominent "Hoggestabben", resembling a tree corpse.

As we got closer to "land", we discovered clouds of petrels overhead. They were riding thermals, some of them going 300km out to the pack ice to feed - others gliding down towards their breeding colony in the cliffs near Svarthamaren, crops full of semi-digested krill and fish oil.

The cliff appears silvery white due to milenniae of bird droppings (=guano).
The actual nests are in the scree zone beneath the cliff edges, where the birds find lots of suitable nesting places amongst boulders and gravel.

The main inhabitant by far is the antarctic petrel. They are bigger than the snow petrels, and prefer nesting in the (relative) safety of big colonies, not unlike seagulls, auks and puffins up in the arctic - the main difference being that the colony lies on a peak surrounded by ice instead of the ocean. The snow petrels are more scattered nesters - being less social and preferring to hide underneath the big stones to avoid predation.

The antarctic petrels are rising on the ridge wind, barely flapping their wings, then dropping down to their waiting partners on the nest below. Some of the females have eggs now, and depend on their partners for both food and guarding.

Approaching Tor station. Behind and above the building the talus zone hosting the petrel colony. The lower reaches are till-covered, more exposed, and serve as nesting ground for the skuas. They are the only predators here. If mammals were somehow introduced here, as has sadly happened on so many southern ocean islands, it would surely wreak havoc in the bird colony. No rats seen yet, though. Dogs (and all other introduced animals) have been banned from the Antarctic since 1998.

The station is a simply a stilted container and a glass fibre igloo. There's food supplies, a stove for melting water and cooking, a paraffine stove for heating, 4 beds, and lots of chocolate.
The bird colony stretching out in the background.

The hobby ornithologist crew, enjoying their Drytec and coffee.
Clockwise from top right: Steinar (shelf transport crew) , Harald (satelite antennae constructor), Geir (all-round technician), and me.

After our meal we went out to explore the immediate surroundings. Svarthamaren is a so called "ASPA", meaning Antarctic Specially Protected Area - a kind of "nature reserve", as defined by the the 1998 Madrid Protocol, the excellent new addition to the effective but loose Antarcic Treaty system. Sadly, this also means our movement around here is severely restricted. This picture shows us trying to get good close-up shots of the neighbouring south polar skuas. They were very aggressive, and charged towards us to chase us off (their nests were not far away).

The skuas are able to stay at Svarthamaren the whole summer, living off eggs, dead and living petrels, sometimes grabbing and killing petrels who stray from the colony. The hassle and unpredictability of scavenging is offset by not having to fly 300km to feed every other day.

Potential victims.

Harald holding a wounded antarctic petrel that was trying to hide under our cabin. It had a bleeding gash in the side, and seemed unable to fly properly, although perfectly capable of biting Haralds finger. It had probably been attacked by the skuas. We left it on a rock, which it quickly crawled underneath. (Any children reading this? The bird will probably heal well, skillfully hide from searching skua parties, one day be able to fly again, thereafter raise many more petrel babies in years to come)

The next day we took the snowmobiles out to explore of the surrounding valley. First we drove towards the big glacier fall coming straight down from the polar plateau. The peak on the right is "Svarthamaren" itself. I suspect the name "black hammer" comes from the massive black dyke (gabbro?) cutting across the reddish (granulitic?) bedrock.

Further north, we're standing on a small nunatak, looking towards "Cumulus Mountain" in the distance.

Along the cliff a wind-hole had formed as the air has been forced up and over the cliff, releasing its load of snow before reaching it.

On the sunny side of the cliff we found several meltwater pools, nurturing spongelike beds of lichen.

And with that celebration of life, again persevering against all odds - I wish you all a happy, and eventful, new year!

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