Mission belge Antarctique 2018

Day: 14 January 2019

Why Belgium continues to keep an exceptional position in Antarctic research

By Jean-Louis Tison

Our previous blog post has described how the efficiency in the logistics and the expertise of the International Polar Foundation allows carrying out research projects like Mass2Ant.

You have seen that polar research implies strong logistic constrains, in a remote place. Polar research also requires up-to-date scientific equipment in the field and in the laboratories for the analyses as well as manpower from the researchers and technicians involved.

Here, as in many other cases, funding remains the key issue! Belgium does not have a polar institute with specific funding like other European countries (France, Germany, Italy,…) and Belgian scientists must thus find other funding sources.

Thanks to its historical involvement in Antarctica (since the expedition of de Gerlache in the late XIX century), Belgium has always maintained a strong position in Antarctica, and more generally in polar research.

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What do you need for an observation campaign in Antarctica?

By Hugues Goosse

The first thing that you think about is probably the scientific equipment needed to perform the measurements. This equipment can be relatively light and comes with you in the plane when you travel to Antarctica but it comes more generally separately as cargo or is even stored at the station.

The containers with the equipment, the ice core storage and the drilling tent.

The second element is likely your personal belongings, such as polar clothes, camera, computers to analyses the data, etc.

However, a dominant aspect in the problem, requiring a lot of time, manpower and budget is the logistics. Everything is more complex in Antarctica and thus must be well prepared and organized.

The International Polar Foundation (IPF) is responsible for the operations at the Princess Elisabeth station. This means that they are in charge of organizing the work at the station itself but also the scientific activities related to the station.

This starts first with the preparation of the scientific mission, for instance performing the medical checking of the participants and booking the flights towards South Africa and then Antarctica.

Before our arrival at the station, the IPF team organized the convoy for the field campaign in order to provide us with all the infrastructure necessary for the scientific experiments and to make our stay in the field as comfortable as possible. The food for 4 weeks in the field also had to be prepared.

For instance, IPF team has installed solar panels on the container we use as a kitchen so that we can rely on a renewable source of energy and not just on a generator for our electricity. They also have added a shower in the bathroom-container, finishing the last details only a few hours before we left Princess Elisabeth station.

The containers including the kitchen, the bathroom and the toilets, with the solar panels

Some adaptations of the scientific equipment had also to be carried out at the station, such as installing the radar antenna on one of the skidoos. The update of a software may seem simple for most of us but becomes much more complex if the connection is very slow. The help of people knowing the method to overcome the problem is thus very much appreciated.

All of this requires a wide range of skills in the team as, if you are not able to do something, it is impossible to call a specialist nearby to help you.

The field mission itself implies heavy infrastructures, with two containers put on sledges for the equipment, one containers for the storing of the ice cores and two containers for the kitchen, bathroom and toilets. Two snow tractors are required for pulling the convoy and we brought six snow mobiles for our travels on site.

The parking for the skidoos and the snow tractor.

The generator and solar panels provide energy to warm up the containers (in particular the kitchen and  the bathroom) and electricity for the scientific equipment, especially the drill.

Pierrick, our mechanics, working with the drill

Material is important for the campaign, but some specialised personal from IPF is also essential. A field guide and a mechanics are accompanying us in the field to be sure that we avoid dangerous unmapped regions, help us if any trouble would occur and to take care of the equipment that suffers a lot in this harsh environment. Both of them also help us greatly for the scientific measurements thanks to their experience.

Christophe, our field guide, in the kitchen.

This part of the work is sometimes hidden in the discussion of scientific research and logistic constrains may sometimes be difficult to understand, even for us. Nevertheless, we are grateful that it is handled properly here otherwise our scientific campaign would not be possible!

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