Getting to Concordia
Nov. 30, 2012
After a few days at McMurdo to go through snow survival school and wait for favorable weather conditions, on Nov 29th we were finally told we could fly to our final destination; Concordia Station at ‘Dome C’ on the Antarctic plateau. Dome C is the name of an area of the Antarctic continent, where the term ‘dome’ refers to a very high elevation, but relatively flat to the human eye, area of the East Antarctic Ice Sheet. It is far inland on the Antarctic continent, roughly 700 miles (~1,100km) inland from the French coastal station Durmont D’Urille to the East (near longitude 140E), and the Australian coastal station Casey to the East (near longitude 110E), and 750 miles (~1200 km) from the Italian coastal Station Mario Zuchelli at Terra Nova Bay and McMurdo Station at McMurdo Sound, both near longitude 165E. Sound complicated? That’s because it is! When you look at a map of Antarctica, you have to remember that the South Pole is in the middle of the map, which means that every direction away from that centerpoint is North. Unlike any other map, you can’t say ‘North is up, South is down’ on the map, because really South means everything inland, and it becomes difficult to describe things such as East and West. That’s why describing lines of longitude gives you a sense of orientation to where you are on the ‘clock’ of Antarctica, while South is simply a measure of how close you are to the center point.
Even though the South Pole looks farther away from the Coast, it’s actually much more difficult to get to Concordia Station, and much colder at Concordia. Dome C has the coldest temperatures in Antarctica, ranging from -80C (-112F) in the winter up to as warm as -25C (-13F) at the warmest point in the summer. The other station in this area, the Russian station Vostok, has measured the coldest recorded temperature on Earth; -89C (-129F) in 1983. ‘Close’ by Antarctic standards is also a relative thing– even though Vostok station is the closest ‘neighbor’ to Concordia, it is still 350 miles (~560km) away, which leads me to my favorite fact about Concordia-
Living at Concordia, our closest neighbors in any direction are not North, South, East OR West– they’re UP. Because we’re in such a remote area of the planet that the closest living people to us are astronauts at the International Space Station, 240 miles (~380km) ABOVE us (when overhead, of course). No human beings on Earth are closer.
In some ways, it seems appropriate that being so far out in the middle of nowhere (the South Pole has more stations as neighbors than we do!), Concordia station is a joint French-Italian base run by the European Space Agency. A lot of the science at Concordia deals with looking far out into the stars, because the Antarctic plateau is the world’s largest desert (a desert is defined by the amount of percipitation (rain/snow), and there’s very little precipitation on the plateau; the snow we live on is very old) so since the sky has so little moisture in it, it’s much easier for telescopes to look farther out into the sky than anywhere else on Earth. The astrophysicists at our station call this a measure of ‘seeing’. Having such clear skies means the telescopes have greater ‘seeing’ at Concordia than many other places; the sky is very dry and there is very little anthropogenic pollution/haze since we’re so far away from cities and civilization. I’m not here to study the sky; I’ll be studying the exchange of gases (ozone, nitrogen oxides, methyl mercury, and others) between the snowpack and the atmosphere, because the Antarctic ice sheet and other snowpacks actually ‘breath’ a gas exchange when sunlight penetrates through the snow.
Concordia is a smaller research base, with 50-60 people living there during the austral summer season. Compared to McMurdo Base, which can have over 900 people living there, and South Pole, which can have over 200 people there, it’s a small but close-knit community out here in the remote wild. In order to fly here, first I left McMurdo in a Twin Otter plane to Mario Zuchelli, the Italian station at Terra Nova Bay. We flew along the coast and landed on Terra Nova’s ice runway (we landed on the frozen ocean!) to switch to a larger plane that took us inland towards Concordia. Fuel burns up quite fast in cold conditions, so we had to refuel at a very empty halfway point called Midpoint Charlie (referring to ‘halfway to Dome C) before finally arriving at Concordia. Because the planes are small and it can be difficult to navigate over an expanse of white, nondescript landscape, the pilots are always cautious of flying in ‘flat’ conditions (when the sky is white rather than blue) and it’s lucky we had favorable weather to leave when we did.
Examples of ‘flat’ conditions, where the sky is white and it makes it difficult to differentiate the white landscape below. These two photos below were taken on the coast, where at least the water creates a sense of contrast, but you can imagine how blurry it gets when you look inland and only see a ‘fishbowl’ of white ahead of you in a plane.
Because it got so cold on the plane my camera started having problems, but I’ve included a video of some of the journey towards Concordia below.