What is it like to live and work in the Antarctic?

By Hannah Schartmann.

Julia Loftfield is working at the Alfred-Wegner Institute (AWI). Currently, she is overwintering in the Antarctic.

The Neumayer Station III is the German Antarctic Research Centre. You are responsible for the air-chemistry observatory at the station. What does a typical day look like for you?

Typically I get up around 7 / 7:30 AM, have breakfast and start working around 8 AM. Usually, I start by checking e-mails, have a quick look at my instruments here at the station and at the monitoring software for the observatory. If nothing unusual has happened overnight I then get ready to head out to the observatory. The observatory is situated 1,5 km south of the station so that any emissions of the station and/or traffic around the station won’t contaminate the air around it. This also means that I have to walk there every day. If the weather is good it is a nice walk of 20 minutes. During storms however, one gets tossed around and sinks into the snow – sometimes knee-deep. So it takes somewhat longer. During the summer I just pulled on a fleece jacket but even now (fall) I don’t need to wear especially warm clothing, since I am constantly on the move (a winter jacket and padded pants are usually quite sufficient). However, I need to make sure that I have every bit of my face covered since the wind will often chill the temperature down to -30 – -40 °C.

Once I am at the observatory I take a look around on the outside. Check that nothing has become loose, remove snow / rime / ice from instruments, windows or any of the air vents. Inside the observatory I then take a look at all the measurements to see if everything is running fine. Most instruments here are continuously generating data and I just need to check on them, refill water or other consumables, transfer data, adjust flows, calibrate them etc. I do take a lot of samples, however, that get shipped back to Germany (snow, aerosol filters, water vapour…). If everything is working fine I am back at the station for lunch. Some sampling however takes hours and I prefer not to walk back and forth twice a day.

The afternoons I usually spend writing e-mails, documenting, preparing the next day, doing lab-work, or anything else currently of importance. Right now for example I am either taking stock of consumables and spare parts or raising the poles of the rope that is leading from the station to the observatory. Depending on the weather.

The evenings we (mostly) have off. So I spend them with things I would to back at home as well: phoning friends and family, sports, watching movies, knitting, reading, making music, or simply hanging out with the other overwinterers. 

Every three hours (except for 3 am) we have to make a meteorological observation at the station (cloud coverage, cloud classification, temperature, wind force and direction, air pressure, and other significant weather e.g. snow drift, snow fall, fog, whiteout etc. pp.). Since our meteorologist can hardly do that all by herself, our computer scientist and I take charge of the observations at 9 pm (me) and midnight (him). So at 8:40 pm I get dressed again and head outside. 

Most of the work here needs to be done daily. We try to get some more time off though during the weekend.  

Have you already obtained interesting results?

Most of the measurements here are long-term measurements. Some of them have been running for thirty years and for other experiments I’m only taking the samples which are going to be shipped back and analyzed in Germany. So there are few quick results. Due to the corona-pandemic, however, I am expecting to see a decrease in the carbon-dioxide (and other greenhouse gases) concentration – or rather not as much increase as the past years. 

When did you decide to work in the Antarctic? Was there a key moment?

I was always intrigued by working in remote areas. And there is hardly anything more remote than Antarctica. And I liked the idea of working in the ice. I am not sure if it was a key moment – but the construction of Neumayer Station III definitely helped – the older stations had all been buried in the snow and ice and I didn’t like the idea of living down there without any daylight. 

So, just remember where you are – it’s unique.

How did you prepare for the life in the Antarctic?

The whole overwintering-crew has several months of preparation before being sent to Antarctica. We had specific training for our respective duties but also joint courses. This involved for example firefighting and mountain rescue courses but also trainings for conflict and crisis management. We had to make sure that we could work well together as a team.

I believe that working in the Antarctic for a long time without seeing family and friends can sometimes be exhausting. How do you keep motivated? What do you think are the main important qualities to work and live successfully in the Antarctic?

There are few stimuli from the outside world. And there is work to be done every single day. One day will start to appear just like any other day because one is doing the same work and seeing the same people. 

So I believe it is important to structure ones days and weeks/months and to set some goals. Those may be small things like Italian food on Mondays or playing basketball on Tuesdays or larger projects like learning a new instrument or language. 

However, work here doesn’t get boring either. Most things are routine, but there is always something new right around the corner. And other team members are always grateful for help. 

And even walking out to my observatory is never the same: some days it’s in bright sunshine, others in the dead of “night”; some days the contrasts are so poor I stumble over every sastrugi there is, others I walk beneath a beautiful moon; and still others I walk out into a gale, can’t even see more than a few meters, fight my way along the rope that is fastened between the observatory and the station, and simply enjoy being out there with natures forces.

So, just remember where you are – it’s unique.

Was there something that shouldn’t be missing in your suitcase? What do you want to do first when you are back home?

Apart from the obvious? A hot water bottle and something to make the bedroom more personal. Like pictures or a nice blanket. And things one might need for recreational purposes – in my case e.g. a unicycle and a whole lot of wool…

There isn’t too much here that I miss doing. But I miss some people – so I’m going to spend a lot of time with them once I’m back.

Have you experienced a moment in the Antarctica that you will never forget (positive or negative)?

When we first flew here, we came with a Douglas DC-3 from Novo Runway. We had clear blue skies, a magnificent view and were all excited to finally get to Neumayer Station. So finally the plane sank and we got a very good view of the ice right beneath us. And watched the ice. And watched it. And were pondering the fact that it was really close. And still weren’t landing. Then we hit a wall of fog, the pilots pulled the plane up, we left the fog and turned around. The pilots tried three times to get underneath that fog land at the station – but couldn’t. So we first flew to Troll Station and since the weather didn’t clear at Neumayer, back to Novo. The fog had appeared only minutes before we had tried to land at Neumayer – it was a very good impression of what the weather can be like in Antarctica. Even during the summer.

Are you already noticing the effects of climate change in the Antarctica and in which way?

In West Antarctica one can easily notice the effects of the climate change. The glaciers are retracting and the temperatures are rising. Here at Neumayer we haven’t (yet) been able to observe any significant changes.

The work and life in the Antarctic also has an impact on the environment. How do you keep your footprint as small as possible?

We are basically doing what can be done everywhere else: try to use as much renewable energy as possible, reduce traffic, recycle, reuse… Our waste water for example gets treated and then reused to flush the toilets. Whenever possible we buy our supplies in bulk and only have them delivered here once or twice a year by ship. 

Furthermore, we don’t leave anything behind. Everything that is brought here has to be taken out again. Every scrap of paper… The station itself can be dismantled – so if it is going to be shut down in 15 / 20 years there won’t be anything left behind.

What is your research goal for the future?

We’ll see what the future brings.

Do you have any message to the public regarding the conservation of the Antarctic?

Antarctica as a continent is very pristine and isolated. And I believe that it should remain that way. It is no coincidence that it is currently the only continent without any cases of Covid-19 infections.

However, I believe that we should generally be more aware of the nature around us and the earth in general. The climate is changing and we shouldn’t just adapt to that (hard enough) or research it but also try to keep the human impact on it as low as possible. It is not too late.

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