We are now well and truly experiencing summer in Antarctica and the last three to four months, have brought a profound change to the station. Not only have numbers on station dramatically increased from 23 to 140 which comes with its unique set of challenges but the landscape has altered beyond recognition.
Gone is the sea ice which extended beyond the horizon covered in thick snow drowning out any sound of the ocean. Gone is the eerie silence, caused by the absence of all animals only interrupted by the whistling of the wind and the sound of skis gliding over the snow. Gone is the night with its undisguised view to galaxies far away. And gone are the spectacular sunsets and sunrises which left you drunken with the glory of this incredible place.
Summer is busy in Antarctica and it turns a still, inanimate, solem landscape shaped by wind and ice into a hubbub of life. The first sign of it are the return of the birds which fly from the edge of the sea ice towards the continent in their search for nesting space. As the days get longer and the dark rocks of Antarctica emerge from the snow drifts on land, the sea ice develops cracks and leads of clear water start to appear allowing more and more seals to return to the station. In the beginning these are usually dominated by crab eater and wedell seals but once the first elephant seals have dragged their enormous bodies onto the sun warmed rocks and the first whiff of their very distinct smell is in the air, once you have been kept awake by the snorting sound they make when fighting – you know – summer is here.
The duration and the extend of sea ice varies between each winter. It is the life line of the marine team to the ocean during winter. But once it starts to decay and becomes unsafe it turns into a nuisance and becomes one of the main topics of daily conversation – generally ensued by a lot of nail biting and a close observation of wind and temperatures. This year, the ice was tenacious and would not let it’s cold grip on the sea be bend by the arrival of summer for a very long time. Ultimately, the sea ice is bound to submit to the force of the wind, currents and extended sunshine and break into the many pieces of a giant jigsaw puzzle. The breaking up of the sea ice is also marked by the re-appearance of orca whales which look for seals to prey upon on the ice flows in the bay. As soon as the last few pieces of ice get dispersed, vital light penetrates the upper layer of the ocean and allows plankton to grow. Within a few days the incredible clear waters of the Southern Ocean turn into pea soup. The plankton is so dense and so big that the single cells can be seen with the naked eye, yet seeing anything else while being in the water is near impossible. This abundance of food encourages krill, which are like little prawn to appear. And while they gorge themselves on this buffet of the sea they are the main attraction for minke and humpback whales which feed in these incredible rich waters.
For the wintering team the pace of life has definitely picked up. Emerging from winter a bit bleary eyed and dazed we greeted the first plane, which was the precursor of a busy season to come. Soon our little tight community started to break up, the field stations in Sky Blue and Fossil Bluff needed to be opened, the last equipment packed for a long and hectic science season in the field. New arrivals needed to be trained, hand overs had to be done and the work load for the marine team has picked up.
Yet although our small wintering team is currently dispersed all over the continent we are still a close unity, an anchor for everybody who might get swept away in this tide of ever changing rapids of people and environments. We can talk to everybody in the field during the evening scheds and we tend to send out letters and goodies (for some reason, lemon drizzle cake is a massive favourite in the field) to field parties whenever we know a plane is going that way. Summer – necessarily inherently different to winter – is punctuated by the station almost bubbling over with noisy excitement and energy and is filled to the brim with things to do. – Yet, knowing that soon summer will – again – come to an end and we will return to civilisation, one cannot help but get the occasional pang of nostalgia wishing that – for just one more time – one could do the walk to work in the morning – alone – in the freezing cold still air of Antarctica under a starry sky only lighted in the North by a brim of fiery twilight and the only sound would be the snow crunching underneath the feet.