When we last reported on meteorologist Elena Stautzebach’s overwintering adventures at the German research base Neumayer-Station III in Antarctica, she was still putting on sunscreen occasionally and donning sunglasses before going outside. Since late May, however, the sun hasn’t made an appearance. Late June brought the “peak of the polar night,” the darkest day in a winter without sun. Now, whenever Stautzebach goes out, she leaves her sunglasses behind and carries instead her headlamp and a GPS unit. The headlamp is important because there’s something lurking out there in the darkness. The Russians gave it a name: Sastrugi.
Most of what happens at a research station in the middle of an Antarctic winter is dictated by work—specifically, by the need to make scientific observations at close, regular intervals. As the meteorologist for Neumayer-Station III, Stautzebach adheres to a strict schedule, and observations are critical in all kinds of weather. She—or whoever fills in for her when she is attending to other duties—must make measurements every 3 hours, from 6 a.m. to midnight. There is, consequently, a threat of monotony, which the team fends off by taking advantage of every opportunity for adventure.
“To be on the safe side, I crawl on my knees or inch on my belly when I go outside for weather observations." —Elena Stautzebach
Sastrugi, which some people consider the worst enemies in Antarctica, help keep things interesting. When, early in the darkness, Stautzebach happened to come across one of them, it was, she says, “the most memorable event” she has experienced so far. “I went to check my measuring instruments during a storm," she says. Earlier in the season, she could orient herself using the 15-meter-high “meteorological pylon” that houses some of her instruments. That tower, located some 200 meters from the station, is "striking; you can see it from at least 1 kilometer away,” she explains. “It is, therefore, difficult to believe that sometimes a GPS is needed in order to find it—until you leave the station during a heavy storm, darkness, and a complete whiteout.” In conditions like that, encounters with sastrugi are almost inevitable, she says.
“It is a strange feeling walking outside, barely seeing the GPS in your hands, and following a point on it.” In the darkness, everything illuminated by the headlamp is white.
Sastrugi are frozen waves of snow formed from the wind, with irregular furrows and sharp crests. One moment you’re walking along a flat plain, and then the next you're tripping over a hill of snow that seems to have arisen out of nowhere. When Stautzebach encountered that first sastruga, she nearly cartwheeled over it. Her response was to laugh. "I'm sitting in the snow after falling down, thinking about the situation I'm in, and to be honest, I enjoyed it a lot," she says. Apparently they’re not that terrifying.
Disorientation would seem to be a more serious threat, but Stautzebach doesn’t worry about that, either. “During heavy storms, we always have easterly winds. If I don't see the Neumayer Station anymore, I just have to walk west, guided by the wind, and I'll automatically cross the rope leading from the chemical observatory to the station.”
Sastrugi aren't the only obstacles the nine people overwintering at the station have tackled. More formidable is the challenge that comes when every day is busy making scientific observations on that unwavering schedule. There are no holidays or weekends, so any time off is celebrated.
“Living and working at the exact same place also means that it is almost impossible to completely get the mind off the job,” Stautzebach says. “Some of us try to break the daily routine by organizing funny or challenging events.” On 21 June, to mark the midwinter polar night, the team built a signpost with directional markers noting the distance to all of their hometowns.
“There are a lot of little things that make us laugh,” Stautzebach says. The glass doors along the station's main hallway can be hard to see in the darkness. “The 2013 overwintering team warned us that some people might not see these doors and walk into one,” Stautzebach says. Indeed, a door took one of her colleagues by surprise. “He bumped into it while some of us where standing right next to him. We all—including him—laugh about this.”
Laughter helps. “Even though we know each other and [have lived] together since the beginning of the preparation time in August 2013, we still sometimes have different expectations toward each other. It is like living in an apartment-sharing community with eight other people of different ages.” At 24, Stautzebach is the station’s youngest resident. Still, “we get along well. We eat together every day. We sometimes share activities together and laugh a lot.”
There is no time for boredom. When she’s not making her routine measurements, Stautzebach stays busy setting up new measuring instruments. Already she has a thermistor chain in place, to measure the temperature profile of the snow, ice, and underlying water. “I will install an automatic weather station soon. [Along with] temperature and humidity, it measures longwave and shortwave radiation, wind speed, and wind direction, as well as snow height. When the sun comes back in a couple of weeks, the station will be operated using a solar panel. For now, I will have to change batteries at least once a week,” she says.
During the twilight of the polar night, Stautzebach had a chance—two chances, actually—to stop and, from a distance, look out over the emperor penguin colony at Atka Bay. The colony, one of Antarctica's largest, is expected to decline as sea ice loss due to climate change increases. Algae, especially that which grows under the multiyear ice, feeds the krill community, the penguins’ main source of food. As the sea ice thickens during the polar night, the females leave the breeding males to take their turn feeding on the tiny, shrimplike crustaceans.
The next sunrise is expected on 23 July. As “it gets brighter again, further sea-ice measurements will start. Along a defined profile, we will drill holes and measure the ice thickness, the thickness of the platelet ice underneath, the freeboard, and the snow cover on the ice. Additionally, we will perform sea- ice thickness measurements with the help of electromagnetic waves,” Stautzebach explains. "After the polar night, I will install some additional radiation-measuring instruments."
For now, when she is back at the station, she continues her observations even when winds approach hurricane strength. “The weather has been stormy the past couple of days. Different low-pressure systems reached us, and there are still a couple to come. Last night, we reached 65 knots (74.8 mph), which is the highest wind speed since we arrived at Neumayer.” Even so, she is no longer tripping over sastrugi. “To be on the safe side, I crawl on my knees or inch on my belly when I go outside for weather observations,” she says.
“Even though we are getting used to storms, it is still impressive how much the station starts to shake as soon as we reach 30-40 knots (34-46 mph),” she says. “During the nights, I often wake up just to hear the sound of the wind and feel the movements of the Neumayer III station, and I love it!”