This is the third part of a series about Elena Stautzebach’s adventures overwintering at a German research base in Antarctica. If you’d like to read the first two parts, you’ll find them here and here.
When meteorologist Elena Stautzebach, who is overwintering at the German research base Neumayer-Station III in Antarctica, tells you “the weather forecast isn't very promising,” you know it's bad.
To be honest, I have mixed feelings about the end of the polar night.
“I'm looking out of my window right now, and it is like looking on a white piece of paper,” she writes in an email. “For more than 10 days, the mean wind speed has been between 30 and 60 knots (35 to70 miles per hour). The highest wind gusts were around 75 knots (86 miles per hour), which is the record since our arrival in December 2013.” And, she adds, “we still have a couple of days with high wind speeds to go.” Her weather observations show that 11 August had the lowest temperature (—41.9°C) since her team's arrival in December.
“Working outside is almost impossible;” yet she still manages to crawl 200 meters on her belly to reach the instruments she needs to monitor every 3 hours between 9 a.m. and midnight. “All weather observations are compulsory, no matter what the weather is like.” There’s just one narrow exception: “If the snowdrift is too heavy and the clouds can't be determined, I have the possibility to code ‘not able to determine cloud amount or cloud type,’ ” she explains.
Such cold temperatures make work much more difficult. “Putting up measuring instruments in cold environments also means that you mostly have to work with only small gloves, sometimes momentarily without any gloves,” Stautzebach writes. “After only a couple of seconds to minutes, you need to warm up your fingers again, which sometimes can take a lot longer. If we take a break, it is only to warm ourselves up. Therefore we do not sit down and relax; we run and jump around, we tap our feet against someone else's feet, etc. It looks hilarious when everyone acts strangely in order to get warm again! I would love to catch these moments on camera sometime, but operating a camera when you are freezing and need to warm up is not one of the easiest tasks.”
The wind is the kicker. Nearly every day in August had wind speeds higher than 20 knots, accompanied by blowing snow. Whiteouts, when everything is snowy to the point where the sky looks the same as the ground, happened on 19 different days. “When I go outside, I can barely see the snow groomer that is parked only 4 meters away.”
Working on the rooftop of the station tests the limits of her capabilities. Yet she ventures up there often to launch weather balloons. In meteorological parlance, the balloons are call sondes, a word taken from both French and German meaning ‘probe.’ The balloons carry atmospheric probes to heights of 30 to 35 kilometers.
Twice each day, about an hour before midnight and noon, Coordinated Universal Time, hundreds of meteorologists worldwide send balloons into the upper atmosphere to measure pressure, temperature, and relative humidity. The probes send information back to the ground stations via radio frequencies (hence the term ‘radiosondes’), and then the data is integrated into the world's daily discussion about the weather.
Launching weather balloons is difficult in heavy winds. “I have to start the sondes on the lee side of the small hall on top of the station where I prepare the balloons. During high wind speeds, wind eddies form on the lee side and the balloon pulls severely in every possible direction. The wind gets caught in the balloon and generates an unbelievable power. It is sometimes impossible to keep control over the balloon, and it either bursts because it touches the deck railings or I simply have to let it go because I can't hold it anymore. But I still love launching sondes during storms; it is exciting and a much bigger challenge than during low wind speeds. And it is a great feeling to succeed in launching a radiosonde during almost 60 knots.”
At least once a week, Stautzebach also tries to launch an ozone-sonde, which is tasked with collecting information on Antarctica's ozone hole. In September, the ozone hole is at its largest because the cold winter months coupled with the returning daylight permit stratospheric cloud formations that do the most damage to the ozone layer. The heavier weight of the ozone-measuring equipment, compared to a normal radiosonde, means she has to use bigger balloons. Because of their size, “it is—almost—impossible to launch an ozone-sonde at higher windspeed than 30 knots,” she writes. Yet, between now and November, she must release as many as possible—as many as three or four per week.
“Because of the weather, I haven't been able to launch an ozone-sonde for the past week,” Stautzebach laments. “A week ago, the ozone concentration in the stratosphere was still at a normal level; I don't know if it has changed yet. I'm impatiently waiting for lower wind speeds in order to get a vertical profile of the present ozone concentration in the atmosphere.”
While Stautzebach was working out on Atka Bay on 22 July, the sun rose again—briefly—for the first time since it set on 28 May. “We were just about to put up the automatic weather station. Two huge grounded icebergs north of Atka Bay obstructed the view, but we managed to catch a glimpse of the sun when it set.” The light from the sun along the horizon has brightened each day. By the beginning of August, the day’s length had reached 4 hours.
“To be honest, I have mixed feelings about the end of the polar night. Of course, it is an incredible feeling to see the sun again after 8 weeks of dawn and darkness, and I am really looking forward to feeling the warmth of the sun again soon. But the end of the polar night also means that we will soon not be able to see the stars of the Southern Hemisphere anymore. There are only a few weeks left where we might be able to catch polar lights, too,” she writes. “The end of polar night also implies that more than half of our stay in Antarctica has passed and that this great experience won't last long anymore.”