Photo: Wojciech J. Miloch

A physicist in Antarctica

Plasma and space physicist Wojciech Miloch is on a month-long mission to Antarctica, to the Norwegian research stations Troll and Tor to set up and test new instruments. He is traveling with a bird researching colleague. Through a slow satellite phone line we receive reports from the field.

17. November 2022, Arrival at Troll

My self-imposed quarantine is over. For the last week I have been working mostly from home. When I was at the campus, everyone was surprised to see me wearing a face-mask. I had to test for Covid every second day before departure, then I was tested again at the airport in Oslo, and later on in Cape Town, where we had a stop-over. Any positive test would mean that the Antarctic adventure would be over before it even started. I would not be allowed to enter the plane. Fortunately, all tests were negative, and I could fly! Such a relief!

And here it was: about five hours after leaving Cape Town, we could see the Southern Ocean covered with icebergs and packed ice. I started to put on warm clothes, applied a wealthy amount of sunscreen, found my glasses, and then looked through the window. Here she was. Antarctica. The white ice-shelf was clearly demarking the continent. In front of us we could see Fimbulheimen, which are the mountains in the Dronning Maud Land. These nunataks bursting through the ice and reaching more than 3000 meters above the sea level keep the Antarctic ice plateau in place. They were closer and closer, and half an hour later, we started approach to the Norwegian Research Station Troll.

The landing was on a smooth icy runway, which is carefully maintained by the Troll station. As we landed and stepped on the ice, we were greeted by colleagues. Some of them, including the last overwintering team, were travelling back. Others were staying for the whole season. The plane quickly left Antarctica, and then some other small planes came to transport staff to other stations in the area. I took a car to the Troll station, which is located about 7 kilometers from the airfield on the slopes of a nunatak, a mountain surrounded by glacier and the blue ice. Both the glacier and the station are located at about 1200 meters over the sea level. The Antarctic glaciers are usually covered by snow, but where the winds are strong, the blue ice of the glacier is uncovered. One of such places is next to the Troll station. I will stay here in Antarctica until the next plane comes, that is for about one month.

The following morning, I climb the nearby mountain to visit our ionospheric observatory. I want to check the instruments, do their maintenance, and exchange some parts. It occurs to me that last time I was here was just before the start of the Covid pandemics. Some dust, a few scratches on the domes due to fierce winter storms, but otherwise, after some maintenance, our instruments are now healthy and can again collect data in the coming seasons. In the observatory we have now two all-sky-cameras for studying the southern lights, and the GNSS scintillation receiver for studying turbulent structures in the ionosphere.

Life at the station has its routine. We have breakfast at 6:30 AM, and then a short briefing, when the expedition leader informs us about tasks for each day. The technical staff is working hard until late hours, with some breaks for meals. The dinner is served at 7 PM, and it is always a treat. The chefs take wonderful care of our morale: the meals are fantastic and rich. This is very important, because working in Antarctica, in this cold and dry environment, lower pressure at higher altitudes, and often strong winds, requires a lot of energy.

Right after arrival, together with my colleagues, we have a safety course, which is required for activities in the field. In the middle of the glacier I rappel down into the crevasse. I cannot see its bottom, and it is narrowing and becoming darker beneath. It is quite cold inside, but finally there is no wind. Around me there are delicate ice-crystals, a beautiful piece of art created by nature.

Finally, my colleagues are pulling me out from the crevasse. I hear the jingle of ice crystals that I unfortunately destroy on my way up. A few minutes later I am safe on the ice. After a short break, it is now my turn to save my colleagues from the inside of the glacier. It is not easy, and only after using tricks that we know from the course in mechanics, with the help of a few wheels, I am able to pull up my colleague. We then have a long first aid course, to learn skills that might be useful in the field. Finally, we prepare food, ice for the drinking water, clothes, scientific and safety equipment and are ready to travel.

We will travel to the field station Tor, which is about 100 kilometers east from Troll. We plan that the journey will take the whole day. Together with my colleague, I will spend the next few weeks at Tor. There I will set up and test new instrument as a part of our ionospheric observing network.

Best regards from Antarctica!

Wojciech J. Miloch, Department of Physics