By Lucia Simion
Far away from traffic jams, polluted cities and rat races, one thousand people are getting ready to live a fantastic adventure on the most remote continent of the world: They are the over-wintering population of Antarctica. Inhabiting some 35 different permanent stations scattered across a continent twice as large as Europe, they will be alone on the ice, where they will experience the polar night, the austral auroras, the blizzards, the solitude and the confinement. They will be more isolated than the astronauts on the International Space Station (ISS) as it is very hard to be evacuated from Antarctica during the polar night.
One of these stations is Concordia, where the overwintering began on February 1, 2008 for a crew of thirteen people from two different countries.
The Concordia station at Dome C, a remote location in the heart of the Antarctic (75° 06’ S, 123° 23’ E), is the only permanent research facility funded, owned and operated by two countries in Antarctica — France and Italy — so the station is a truly European facility, operated by the Italian polar program (PNRA) and the French polar institute (IPEV) together.
The idea is to open the station to other European countries as well, but at the moment that is still a project to come. Italy and France have stuck to the agreement signed in Paris in 1993 for the construction of a common research facility on the polar plateau in Antarctica. Inaugurated in 2005 (after five years of construction work), Concordia cost some thirty million euros – funded fifty-fifty by Italy and France.
From 1997 to 2004, Dome C hosted the successful EPICA project (European Project for Ice Coring in Antarctica), during which the most ancient ice to date in Antarctica was retrieved — a climatic archive spanning over 800,000 years — by an international team from ten different European nations. In those years the Concordia station was still being assembled, so the EPICA team and the construction workers’ team (from Italy and France) lived in a small but very comfortable camp comprised of containers and Weatherheaven tents. After the inauguration of Concordia (with the first overwintering), the camp was shut down, but is still there for emergency purposes.
When you land at Dome C, far from the Ross sea and the Dumont d’Urville sea, far from the Trans-Antarctic mountains and even far from the South Pole 1,800 kilometers away, there is not much to see. With the exception of the two ivory colored towers of Concordia and some other small buildings and scientific facilities, there is just a huge expanse of snow circling around the horizon and a big deep blue sky embracing this endless white plain. If he had set foot there, Captain Scott would have said “Great God, this is an awful place!”, as he did when he reached the geographical South pole almost one hundred years ago.
But Dome C doesn’t feel like an awful place. At least not to me. And I am not the only one, since many other people, women and men, researchers and technicians, are under the spell of this lonely place at the end of the world. The air sparkles with millions of tiny snow crystals and — except for the snow that cracks under your thick Sorel boots — there is a huge, fantastic silence. The atmosphere is serene and calm. Although there is little to see on the surface (other than Concordia), a fantastic landscape is hidden under the 3,300-meter thick ice cap. There are valleys and hills and mountains and fourteen freshwater lakes, including the second largest sub-glacial lake after Vostok.
Beside the beauty and the remoteness of the location, and the mysteries hidden under the ice, there are at least two other reasons why I cherish Dome C and Concordia: I am Italian and I was raised between Italy and France, and 11 years ago I chose Paris as my adoptive city. Since Concordia is a French-Italian research station, the place means a lot to me. Also, I have been the only photographer and science writer to cover the building of Concordia for three years in a row (from 2000 to 2003), and so — needless to say — I am deeply attached to Dome C. My assignment was to document and photograph the building of Concordia and the EPICA project for both the Italian and the French polar programs, to be present until the inauguration and finally to publish a book on the project.
I very much wanted to go back to Concordia, circumstances prevented me from returning to Dome C, so my three year long reportage remained unfinished. The photographs have been published in the press, printed in annual reports, shown in photo exhibits and used by researchers and managers in their presentations to the scientific community... but my dream was not achieved.
Finally in November 2007, thanks to the Italian Polar Program, I got the chance to fly to Dome C from Mario Zucchelli Station at Terra Nova Bay. Now I would finally be able to see the completed Concordia station.
We were only four souls in the Kenn Borek’s Twin Otter: Two pilots and two passengers (Lucia Agnoletto, an engineer specialized in environmental monitoring who was the first Italian woman to overwinter at Concordia in 2006 — and myself). We two Lucias were sitting in the rear of the plane, with several boxes filled with fresh fruits and vegetables between us and the cockpit. While I looked out the window at the vast expanse of the polar plateau, memories came flooding back. I remembered for example when I first found out about the Concordia station — it was eight years ago, while traveling to Australia. In a magazine I read a short news story: “In Antarctica, the French-Italian station Concordia is being built on the polar plateau at Dome C. The station will be inaugurated in 2004.”
I was intrigued, and when I went back to Europe I managed to get in touch with the Italian and the French Polar Programs, because I wanted to cover the assembling of the station. I thought I was the right person, since I belong to both countries, besides having already become “addicted” to the ice after my first journey to the Antarctic peninsula.
It was March 2000. At the beginning of December of the same year I was boarding the French vessel Astrolabe in Hobart, heading South to Dumont d’Urville in Adélie land. The Astrolabe is a small ship, 65 meters long, bearing the same name as that of the sailing vessel of Jules Sébastien César Dumont d’Urville. In 1840 Dumont d’Urville discovered Adélie Land, name after his wife Adèle. (The Adélie penguins as well were christened after her.)
Seven days of navigation across 2700 kilometers of turbulent ocean before we could see — from afar — the “Archypel de Pointe Géologie”, where the French permanent station Dumont d’Urville (DDU) is located. Beyond the station we could see the barren polar plateau. No mountains here, only rock islands teeming with bird life and a “fleet” of huge icebergs scattered in the sea. DDU is one of the “historical” stations on the ice. The first building — a tiny hut called Cabane Marret after the expedition leader — was assembled in 1952, a few days before a fire destroyed the Port-Martin station, located 80 km to the west. From DDU I flew to the Italian station Terra Nova Bay (five hours) and afterwards to Dome C (another five hours flight).
Just as for that very first flight in the year 2000, in November 2007 I took off from Terra Nova (now re-named Mario Zucchelli, after the manager who ran the PNRA for 16 years). We flew over the Northern Foothills, then over the huge Nansen Glacier, the Reeves Glacier and finally over the polar plateau. Two and a half hours later we landed at Mid-Point to refuel; the temperature was -31°C. After the short stop we took off again. “Two hours to Dome C”, the pilot told me. Two hours — and I would see Concordia once again.
The last time I had been in Dome C — in 2003 — both buildings had been completed and sealed, but had not yet been occupied. Now I would see a “home”, and not just a building site. I remembered so well when I had climbed for the first time onto the metal framework — 270 tons of steel, all transported onboard the so-called “Raid” (the traverse that travels from Adélie land to Dome C, in a ten day-long journey across the vast polar plateau). The framework was quite slippery and I had to be harnessed and wear an helmet, like all the building workers.
Also, I remembered the assembling of the huge external sealing panels, each 11.3 meters long, 1.5 meters wide and 16 centimeters thick. When it was windy, the crane that lifted the huge panels had to stop working: The surface of the panel would act as a sail, and the crane could topple.
I remembered the mounting of the windows, done at temperatures of -40°C. For the Italian and the French construction team members (speaking a mix made up of French-Italian and English words), it had been a hard job. And even for me, despite the two gloves I was wearing, one upon the other, my fingers were freezing and hurting while I was photographing. The tip of my nose was frost-bitten twice. But it had been great to witness the station growing little by little, like a giant construction set. And feeling like being a member of the construction team! Being side by side with the international EPICA team had also been very inspiring. I will never forget those years.
Fast forward to November 2007. After two more hours of flight from Mid Point we finally landed at Dome C. Our Twin Otter Kilo Bravo Charlie taxied from the runway almost to the doorsteps of Concordia. It was only to be a short half-day visit — we were there to pick up the over-winterers who were to return to Terra Nova. As usual, the entire summer campaign team was waiting outside for the arrival of the aircraft. I set foot on the snow and I looked up to Concordia, as I used to do years ago when we traveled by snow-mobile from the summer camp to the building site (500 meters). I was greeted by French and Italian friends and by Marco Maggiore, the station manager (during the 2008-2009 overwintering, the station leader will be a Frenchman, Jean-François Vanacker).
We walked to the stairs and climbed into the station, which is made of two main buildings on stilts connected by an aerial tunnel. One building (the “noisy” one) houses the workshops, the kitchen and the labs. The other one (named “quiet”) houses the hospital, the rooms and the bathrooms. A third smaller building houses the generator.
These days, all the new stations — like Amundsen-Scott station, inaugurated on January 12, or the future Halley VI station and Neumayer 3 — are elevated to avoid snow-drift accumulation. Concordia, Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station and Neumayer 3 can be jacked up to avoid being damaged by drifting snow.
When I got inside, I found a completely “new” station. I took off my parka and walked all over, with the station manager as my guide. I found Concordia comfortable and warm, a truly neat station for a overwintering crew of maximum fourteen people. (The population doubles during the summer season). Inside, the colors are light blue, light red or light green. The rooms look like sailboat cabins — they are not big but are comfortable, with views of the empty horizon. The medical center (with an operating room assembled by Roberto Dicasillati, the surgeon with the first overwintering, and his teammates) includes a dentist’s chair. The lounge is friendly and warm, with lots of books in Italian and French and videos to watch in both languages. The kitchen is large, and the nearby dining room is really nice. (The menu includes French, Italian and international dishes). The workshop is lively and it is the only place where smoking is permitted inside the station.
Marco took me to see the experiment that the European Space Agency (ESA) is conducting here at Concordia, in collaboration with the PNRA and IPEV. It is a gray water treatment system and will be operating also for “black” water. In the future, a system like this could be used onboard a spaceship bound for Mars. After that, the Station leader and I climbed on the roof of the station, so that I could see 360° around Concordia. The roof of Concordia is made of bright orange insulating panels. As I stood there gazing out, I remembered when I photographed construction workers completing the metal frame on the roof: I had asked to be lifted up by crane to be at the same height as they were. It had been a bright day, but extremely cold (-40°C). Work with bare hands had been absolutely impossible and even with the gloves my fingers were in pain, as if they had been crushed by a door!
The wide horizon was circling all around me, with nothing else besides snow and ice. Concordia cast a big blue shadow on the snow. Five hundred meters away was the summer camp, and around the station, some two dozen containers looked like tiny houses around a cathedral....
Dome C is considered to be one of the best place on earth for astronomy and astrophysics. More and more experiments and telescopes are coming to the station. Lots of big projects are programmed for the future, including the search for extra-solar planets, observations in the infrared spectrum, and the study of cosmic microwave background radiation. An international team of astronomers and astrophysicists belonging to a network called ARENA (Antarctic research, a European network for astrophysics) is working to coordinate projects and research infrastructure. During the 2008-2009 summer campaign, a small 80 cm infrared telescope (IRAIT), designed and constructed in Italy, will be installed at Dome C. Two SuperDARN arrays for the study of auroras should also be assembled.
When I boarded again the little red-and-white Twin Otter, scheduled to fly back to Terra Nova, I was sitting side by side with three people who spent the third overwintering at Concordia (2006-2007). As we took off, they looked back to the station one more time. It had been home for them for eight long months. The experience of a lifetime. Some had tears in their eyes. I knew how they felt. We are all spellbound by Concordia.
Lucia Simion (c) Photos and text
Lucia Simion is the author of a book on Antarctica published in October 2007, in Italian and French. The book has been selected to be in an IPY Polar Books Collection.
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Tuesday, 19 February 2008 21:51
Lucia Simion: Return to ConcordiaWritten by Lucia Simion
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