Exploring the North – What does Antarctica sound like?
On the last stop of my exploration of the North, I could for a short while feel like a researcher in Antarctica shoveling snow. That’s because when I met Antarctica researcher Tore Hattermann for an interview, he was actually clearing piles of snow from his driveway. It’s routine work to free the sleeping tents after each snow storm in Antarctica, he tells me, as he hands me a shovel. On his expedition to the southernmost continent, he’s been literally working in the middle of nowhere: 70 degrees southern latitude, 600 kilometers from the solid wintering station, 100 kilometers from the coast, right upon the floating ice shelf.
You live here in Tromsö in the Arctic but your research focuses on Antarctica which is at the other end of the planet. How did that come about?
Well, Tromsö is home to the Norwegian Polar Institute where I did my Phd. I now work for the Norwegian company Akvaplan niva. Even along the Norwegian coast, there’s a circulation of water between the deep ocean and the continental shelf – that’s the coastal region that’s covered with sea water. My current work focuses less on the temperature that reaches the ice but rather on the nutrients that reach the fish or on oil pollution. That’s why we’re developing a new model that describes the circulation of water on the Norwegian coast.
What motivates you to research on the topic and develop such models?
As a physicist, I find the whole issue of climate change very interesting and so the subject matter is very motivating. I like the fact that you have to improvise quite a lot when you do field work in Antarctica because things often turn out differently than you expect. So if suddenly the pressure drops during a drilling operation, you have to think about what could be causing it and how you can solve the problem quickly and without the right replacement parts. I enjoy such unforeseen challenges. And it’s exciting to be out there in nature and experience extreme situations.
Antarctica is the coldest continent on earth and is considered one of the most hostile terrains. But how does the continent sound?
Sometimes you hear birds. They live further inland near the Norwegian station on the cliffs. They have to fly 300 kilometers to the coast to search for food. They sometimes land near us on the shelf ice when we’re working on the ground, probably because they think we have food. Otherwise it’s quiet when the weather is good. But during bad weather, you can hardly hear yourself because the wind is so loud there – it’s over a 100 kilometers an hour.
How do you get around in such an environment?
We have mobile trailers on skis that transports 12 tons of equipment. That’s why they can only travel very slowly, around 12 kilometers an hour. For the drilling, we had to travel 600 kilometers from the Norwegian station to the ice shelf.
Isn’t it dangerous to simply drive over the floating ice shelf?
We have security experts with us who first check with the help of satellite images where glacial crevasses are located and accordingly choose the routes. In addition, we have a ground penetrating radar five meters in front of the vehicle. Most of the glacier cracks are one to meters wide and around 25 meters deep. A person could fall into one but the big vehicles can simply drive over it. In a region where there are glacial crevasses, you can only travel in a vehicle with seat belts over the ice, equipped with climbing gear and a pickaxe. We also have training in crevasse rescues where, for example, you learn to build a block and tackle in order to get out of the crevasse.
Do you live in constant fear?
The danger isn’t the cold or the loneliness or broken equipment. Rather it’s relying completely on yourself. There is a first-aid training prior to the expedition but even the doctors say that in case of a serious injury, there is nothing you can do other than wait till help arrives. And that can take too long. But, fortunately, you’re not thinking about it all the time.
What does your work and life out in Antarctica look like?
In the Antarctic summer, the sun shines 24 hours a day. Our contract foresees 12 hours of work a day, there are no weekends. Real work time however depends on the weather. During drilling, we’d know there will be a storm in three days but we need around 36 hours for a drilling hole. You can their either till the storm is over and start after that or finish before the storm breaks and that means working round the clock.
Otherwise, you have a lot of time which you spend with other people in a cramped space. Psychologically, that often leads to strange things. But I was lucky to have sensible colleagues in the field who allow each other their privacy. And you have your own tent where you sleep though you have to dig it out after a snow storm. But it’s not as cold in there as you’d think. My girlfriend Anne, who accompanied the last expedition as a technical assistant, measured the temperature in her tent during good weather and it 28 degrees Celsius in there. The snow was still minus ten degrees cold but when the sun shines it’s really okay. With black woolen underwear, you can easily work outdoors in a T-shirt.
When we stay in one place for a long time, we always set up our flags so that rescue plans can find us in case of an emergency and not land on the snowed under tents or the equipment. You have to call the station every day via satellite phone and tell them everything is okay. If we don’t do that, they come out to us immediately.
When the weather is bad, I usually spend my time reading or analyzing data as soon as the results of the measurements are available. But then at some point you fall into a rut and you can’t motivate yourself to do any of that. Then you simply sit in front of the computer and watch films.
And what do you eat during an expedition. Canned ravioli? Or penguin?
We did consider trying penguin once but it would have led to a huge scandal. It sounds a bit crazy but we travel with a deep freezer container through Antarctica. That’s primarily meant to keep ice cores cold. That’s because it can get up to -1 to 0 degrees warm but the ice cores come from -15 degrees cold ice and need to stay that cold. But we could then store our frozen food in the container. The cook from the Norwegian station precooked food for everyone during the entire duration of the expedition and partly froze it – and we then simply thaw it.
Such a deep freezer container probably uses a lot of energy. What’s the carbon footprint of such a project?
The less said about that, the better. During one of our expeditions, we had 180 barrels of diesel with us. For 11 people, that amounts to emissions of around nine tons of carbon dioxide per person. That’s equivalent to the carbon emissions of a German on average each year or the emissions that a airplane emits from Hamburg to Tromsö and back. But it’s still ten times more than what each person in a “climate neutral” society should be allowed to emit on average.
The Belgians have built a base that is meant to be energy neutral. In my view, it makes little sense to build a showcase for the handful of people who work in such extreme conditions and then to have a society at home that is so wasteful. You could have much higher CO2 savings if you, for example, stopped heating pedestrian zones in Norway. From an energy standpoint, you put in a huge effort for a comparatively smaller benefit that is much more symbolic and is easy to publicize in the media.
In moderate climate zones, saving energy while constructing homes isn’t really a technical challenge anymore and still loads of non-zero-energy homes are still being built. And through the per-capita energy consumption of a few participants of an expedition to the Antarctic ice shelf is terribly high, in the end it’s mainly the three truck motors of our vehicles that use the most fuel during the two months in ice – not to mention the intercontinental flights from Cape Town to Antarctica.
What would you like to discover in the future?
A midterm goal is to find out why some models predict warm water under the Fimbul ice shelf and others don’t. The project officially ended together with my doctorate thesis. But actually “ended” means there are no funds for it any more. Each time you dig a hole as a scientist, you find three places where you should dig further – you’ll always find more questions than answers.
DateMay 3, 2013