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Photo: Wojciech J. Miloch

Settling in at Tor station

– We drive along a mountain chain which looks other-worldly, writes Wojciech J. Miloch on his way to Tor field station in Antarctica.

22. November 2022, Travel to Tor

Tor is a field station located about 100 kilometers east of Troll. To get there we drive an all-terrain-vehicle which works rather well in Antarctica. We start early in the morning to make sure that we arrive during daytime. We are so far south that the Sun does not really set here anymore at this time of year, yet it is still colder at night and winds can get strong at night at Tor.

We drive along a mountain chain which looks other-worldly. Nunataks towering above the endless glacier look like ruins of colossal castles of some ancient civilization. It is cold outside. Windows on southern side of the vehicle are in the shadow and are freezing constantly. I am scratching ice on them in struggle to see outside, but when some rays of sun fall on them, the ice disappears in a few seconds! We stop for quick lunch in a middle of nowhere, surrounded on one side by a white flatness, and by mountains to the south. We check our luggage, see if everything is still well secured, collect clean snow to melt it for drinking water, and slowly drive further. The sastrugi, dunes of hard snow, slow us down, but we make it through and by late afternoon we reach Tor.

Tor station is located at about 1600 meters above the sea level on the slopes of Svarthamaren nunatak. Five kilometers to the south the glacier rises rapidly by another 400 meters, and the Antarctic plateau begins. Cold winds from the plateau throughout nighttime blow out snow from the glacier nearby, leaving just blue ice. But close to the station the snow accumulates, and to get in we need to shovel a bit our way through.

No one has been here for a long time, and it is like walking into a freezer. The first thing we do is to start fire in the oven. After about one hour the temperature rises inside, and we have a nice “cabin” feeling inside.

The following day I mount the GNSS scintillation and TEC receiver on the roof of the station and start monitoring. This is a pre-deployment of an instrument for studying space weather conditions and ionospheric irregularities. We have a similar instrument at Troll, and by having two such instruments separated by 100 kilometers we will be able to learn more about ionospheric conditions over Antarctica, by being able to constrain the irregularities in the ionospheric plasma both spatially and vertically. The ionosphere is the uppermost part of the atmosphere which is partially ionized, and it is in a so-called plasma state. Our instruments monitor signals from the GNSS satellites, such as Galileo or GPS, which are used for navigation. We study the quality of these signals and based on it we can estimate how the ionosphere is structured. Ionospheric plasma irregularities will modify the wave propagation and can lead to wave interference and diffraction, which we can observed in the amplitude and phase of the incoming wave. We can estimate the scales of these irregularities.

The view from Tor. Photo: Wojciech J. Miloch

“Beltevogn” drives away after two days. For the next few weeks two of us will stay here completely alone. Twice a day we will send a message via a satellite to Troll informing about our status and will sometime receive weather forecast. The space physics instrument works very well, and I am going to monitor the conditions during my stay here. I will also assist my colleague in his field work in ASPA, the Antarctic Specially Protected Area “Svarthameren”, which protects a huge bird colony, unique on the scale of the whole continent.

Wojciech J. Miloch

Department of Physics

University of Oslo

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.