Three weeks have passed since the last plane left and something like an everyday life at station has started to develop. It’s hard to imagine that the first month alone has almost passed. Everybody at station is getting used to fulfilling their daily routines and base operation as a whole is really smooth. So far we have been incredibly lucky with the weather, since we’ve had no major storms so far. We did have winds exceeding 50 knots a few weeks ago, but that only lasted a little longer than a day and was over quite quickly. From my time in 2012 I am used to having at least a week of bad weather at a time, but so far we’ve had none of these incidents. This is especially good for our filming, since we can spend a lot of time outside and chase after these special moments for which you have to be outside and really experience the place. That’s why we have spent a couple of mornings at the edge of the shelf ice, watching Atka-Bay open and close again. Sometimes it’s open water with lots of sea smoke, on other days ice floes move in or fresh sea-ice forms, only to break open again later on the very same day. This time of the year, the bay never looks the same and whenever we have a look at the various coastal spots, that we visit, they have completely changed in appearance. It is quite remarkable how the penguins can actually recognize „their“ bay, since no landmark remains untouched – not even the shelf itself.
A few weeks ago Lindsay and I were heading towards the North-East pier and while we were approaching the edge and could see the open sea from a distance, something just did not feel right. We have gone there so many times, that my body almost knows when we arrive without even having to check the GPS or the surroundings. This time I felt like we still had around 400m further to go until we would reach the edge, but all of a sudden it was right in front of me. I stopped roughly 50m away from it and could not believe my eyes at first. Lindsay got of his Skidoo as well and there was a brief moment of silence and disbelief: a big portion of the shelf ice of the North-East pier had calved off the ice-shelf and where our GPS markers were set for a safe spot near the edge, now was a big portion of open water, as well as a 15m drop. The chunk of ice, that broke off the shelf was roughly 300m by 1500m long and just too massive to comprehend from the ground (it was not until after we had a look at the satellite images that we were able to realize the enormous size of this piece of ice). In front of us were Skidoo tracks leading into nothing only to reappear on the surface of the floating iceberg around 200m away from us. If a person had gone here in bad weather conditions and bad visibility there’d been a good chance that he/she would have driven right into the sea. It is for that reason, that even after so many weeks of being here and knowing the place by heart, we stick to our simple rule „Visits to the edge, only in benign weather conditions and good visibility“. If one follows this rule (and we will certainly do in the future as well) it is actually quite safe to approach the edge of the shelf ice.
The newly formed edge looked absolutely stunning though – beautifully round and smooth like someone had taken a giant warm knife and just sliced a piece away from it. I have to say at this point that calving events like this are actually very common in Antarctica. In fact, almost every iceberg that is floating around in our bay came from such a calving event of a shelf in Antarctica. Events like this don’t happen overnight though, but they can build up for years. With the glaciers being pushed towards the sea from the giant ice masses of the interior of the continent, cracks and fissures form in the ice and sooner or later widen up just enough to all the ice to break off. I guess it was about time that something like this happened here in Atka Bay again, since the shape of the shelf had not changed in a few years. So to all of you who might be worried now, I can guarantee you: We and Neumayer are safe and nothing unnatural has happened!
Getting back to the ever changing bay I am happy to say, that new sea ice keeps forming, since temperatures have dropped considerably. We have had quite a few mornings now with -20°C and below and our balaclavas and buffs are constant part of our clothing now. Just four weeks ago you could get away with just wearing a beanie on your head, but now the situation has dramatically changed. The good weather has helped to maintain the cold temperatures for some days in a row now and hence the sea is quite calm and new sea ice formed rather quickly.
The so called pancake ice forms first and creates a unique pattern on the water that will later on connect to other pancakes and form larger ice floes that will drift around until they dock to other ice floes and slowly but steadily create a solid layer of ice. I guess in two to three weeks we will see the ice become stable enough not to break open anymore and then we will finally need a little bit of bad weather and lots of snow blowing from the East to fill up the pressure ridges on the sea ice with snow. Moreover, snow needs to be blown against the edge of the shelf ice and form a ramp, that we can use in order to descend from the shelf ice onto the sea ice with our skidoos. Fingers crossed, that the weather will continue to behave in our favor.
While we were spending a lot of time looking at the bay we also saw the first groups of emperor penguins return. At least a couple of hundred birds reappeared, gathering up on little drifting ice floes, always going in and out of the water. At this point I am not confident yet, whether the birds are just taking a break from fishing in the sea or whether they have actually returned for the season already and are waiting for the sea-ice to reform so they can breed. We will continue to observe this development.
What will help us in achieving spending as much time outside as possible during the cold temperatures is our newly installed base camp right at the edge of a place that we call Pingiramp. It consists of two shipping containers, that were modified into a living container and one storage/utility/generator container. These will allow us to take breaks from the cold weather when we are at Pingiramp and also give us an opportunity to sleep, eat and clean up, if we need to stay outside for a longer period of time. Furthermore, they will also greatly reduce the way we have to travel in the cold in order to get to the penguin colony and since we will also be able to store our equipment there, it will help us to travel more lightly and be easier on our gear – lugging it around on the sledges does put wearing marks on it.
The generator container is separated into three sections. When you step though the entrance there is a small room with shelves where we will be able to store some of our kit and keep it cold (not ice-cold though) so thermal stress is reduced. The next door leads into the bathroom with a simple shower, a dry toilet and a sink. The third room is the largest of the three since it houses a generator and an emergency tank that we use in order to generate heat and electricity for the living container. Both containers are only connected via the main power line that runs from the generator container into the living container.
In the living container we have three bunk beds, a table and a small kitchenette as well as plenty of cupboards to store away food, water and equipment like battery chargers, laptops, etc. It’s quite small but cosy and will be a welcome resting place for those very very cold days in the mid of winter. Tea and instant noodle soups will taste amazing- that’s for certain :).
Coming back to gear and gear and transportation for a second, we now have a great wooden box, that we pull around on a Nansen-sledge in order to transport our equipment. A member of the summer construction team, Frerk, has built a great box for us, that really suits all of our needs and makes it so much easier to access or pack all of our gear away quickly. Since Frerk is a humorous guy and an incredible craftsman we have named the box in his honor: „Frerk 2000“. It’s all we could ever look for in a box, as it can even act as wind protection, if you park the skidoo just right. We’ll put it to good use and I can already say that this will be one of the small things it will be hard to say goodbye to.
There is a lot of stuff happening in Atka-Bay at the moment, even though the birds are not quite back yet (only occasionally it seems). Until then we will continue to make best use of the good weather and spend as much time outside as possible. Photographically this means that the current focus is on landscapes and details and I hope to be able to show you some new images soon. Stay tuned! 🙂