HEIMPLANET IN THE ANTARCTIC
HEIMPLANET recently collaborated with New Zealand scientists to support their research on climate change in Antarctica. But how do you protect sensitive scientific instruments in the harshest environment on earth? With the strongest tent in the world - the MAVERICKS!
With howling winds and temperatures below -30 °C, the southern end of our planet is far from laboratory conditions. "Especially if you want to measure how the ice interacts with the ocean, you quickly reach the limits of what is possible," says Christian Wild, an ice researcher at the University of Canterbury. He has just returned from an expedition to the Priestley Glacier, a large glacier that drains the Antarctic ice sheet into the ocean through the Transantarctic Range.
To gain a comprehensive understanding of the processes near the baseline, where the glacier comes into direct contact with the ocean, it is important to estimate Antarctica's contribution to current sea level rise. The "Kiwi researchers" installed a highly sensitive radar on an exposed ridge to record how the ocean tides affect the flow of the glacier. The problem with this radar is that it cannot see through metal poles like those found in standard polar tents. But some form of protection from the Antarctic elements is absolutely necessary to prevent the device from wobbling in the wind.
The unique design of the mavericks was the perfect solution. With the help of the HEIMPLANETteam, the tent was modified for its "ice-cold" use. All metal parts were replaced with custom-made plastic parts to avoid possible interference with the radar. Clamps were replaced by cords, the anchoring of the tent was strengthened as much as possible and guide ropes became anchor lines. The scientists also had to cut a hole in the ground to make room for the radar's tripod - all in the name of science. "There is no overkill in Antarctica, there is only adequate preparation".
Up on the ridge, Christian's team discovered that the radar's antennas were too long to have enough distance to the tent.
"We had to pitch the tent on a stone wall to have enough space in case the wind would increase. To build their stone wall, however, the scientists first had to get rid of the summit stones - an exhausting task, especially when you only have one package.
After two days of collecting and piling up stones with their bare hands, the scientists were ready to start the measurement campaign. "At least we had plenty of sunlight every day. Below the Antarctic Circle (66.6° S), the sun can be above the horizon for 24 hours in the Australian summer months. The radar then scanned the surface of Priestley Glacier continuously every three minutes for an entire spring nap tide cycle."
Our records are excellent because we can now study whether the glacier accelerates at different stages of the tide or whether it flows steadily into the sea. This short-term acceleration of the glacier's flow is often overlooked when interpreting satellite images, which only monitor this area every few days. During the measurement campaign, the radar did not need much attention - but the scientists still had to maintain the instrument every day. We spent at least an hour in the tent every day, typing with woollen gloves and desperately waiting for the data download to finish.
How cold was it?
Sometimes I could only breathe through my nose to warm the cold air before it reached my lungs - it made my nostrils freeze."
How do you manage to stay warm?
We wear several layers of down jackets and merino underwear. No cotton, as it cools the body down quickly when it gets wet.
Are there any other tips or tricks?
We came up with a dance choreography to warm up numb limbs.
After two weeks on the ridge, the data set was complete and the scientists were withdrawn from the field. Our Korean collaborators arrived with four helicopters flying in formation over the ice - impressive!
What happened afterwards?
We flew back to the base called Jang Bogo with all our equipment, scientific tools, rubbish and human waste. We only left footprints in the snow and took photos. Back at the base, the Korean station manager put the scientists' venture on a par with Amundsen's expedition to the South Pole over 100 years ago - an honour. We were welcomed with grilled pork belly, samgyeopsal, a delicacy of Korean cuisine, all you can eat. Most notably, the base cook provided them with meat over the next few days until the Kiwi explorers returned to New Zealand with the Royal Air Force. The view of the Transantarctic Mountains was breathtaking - a vast, hostile environment, but also pristine and worth protecting from human interference.
How does it feel to be there?
It's like being on another planet. The Extreme Cold Weather Gear is your spacesuit and the base is your command centre. We thought of ourselves as ice astronauts. This was the first successful deployment of a radar system in Antarctica. The MAVERICKS did a great job protecting the instrument from the howling winds of Antarctica.
Any suggestions for improvements?
Yes, we need it even bigger so we don't have to build a wall next time. It was fun, but with our stiff fingers we couldn't hold a cup of tea in the morning.
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