Why it can be hot there, how Ukrainians made friends with the Americans and the British, and why penguins prefer the company of Ukrainian scientists, according to the polar explorer. (Rubryka, 06 Feb 2021).
Today, February 6, we are celebrating the anniversary of the Vernadsky Research Base. This year, the President signed a decree “On celebrating the 25th anniversary of the founding of the Antarctic station, Vernadsky Research Base.”
25 years ago, the British Faraday station became the property of Ukrainian scientists, and since then, researchers have been sent here every year to continue measuring and studying Antarctica in all its forms.
Rubryka contacted Anna Soina, a Ukrainian research engineer at the Radio Astronomy Institute of the National Academy of Sciences, who is currently “wintering” at the Vernadsky Research Base. Wintering lasts about a year; each expedition is different, and how long it’ll last now depends on how soon the “shift” arrives at the Research Center: a group of scientists who’ll stay here for the next year.
How does love for the South Pole emerge?
Anna works in the Department of Radio Physics of the Geo Cosmos of the Radio Astronomy Institute of the National Academy of Sciences of Ukraine. She searches and tracks seven-day cyclicalities in various environmental parameters; Antarctica is her old dream. She became interested in it as a student when she was engaged in scientific work related to the ozone level and the ozone hole:
— Yurii Yampolskiy (now my scientific advisor and teacher) and Hennadiy Milinevskyi helped me a lot; Andrii Zalizovskyi gave me data on ozone and photographs for a thesis. All of them are winterers with experience or seasonal work participants, prominent scientists. Communicating with such professionals and doing interesting work, it was hard for me not to be ‘infected’ with Antarctica. Besides, I engrossed myself in books about the expeditions of R. Scott [Captain of the Royal Navy of Great Britain in the late 19th – early 20th centuries, who led two expeditions to Antarctica – ed.], R. Amundsen [Norwegian polar traveler and record holder, the first person to reach the South Pole in 1911 – ed.], Shackleton [English-Irish explorer of Antarctica, who participated in 4 expeditions of the same period] and other famous researchers. When the women began to participate in wintering again, I turned to my scientific supervisors (the organization has to recommend scientists for wintering); they supported my candidacy, for which I’m immensely grateful.
— What do you like here?
— I like everything here! Weather, terrain, wildlife, people I work with, and people I meet here. Antarctica is a unique and wonderful world where people are only guests, and both humans and animals exist in complete harmony.
— What was it like to get to Antarctica in lockdown with closed borders?
— We were getting to the station for a month. It was an unforgettable adventure; then everyone was very nervous, and the Antarctic center did a Herculean job. This story began with us having to fly out a week before the scheduled date. When we learned about the quarantine, the center informed us we needed to fly out in two days; during this time, I got ready and left for Kyiv with my colleagues. We had to fly to Turkey, then to Colombia (still open at that point), and then to the Chilean Punta Arenas; as a result, our 25th UAE (Ukrainian Antarctic Expedition) and the seasonal expedition team were stuck for a week in Istanbul. Two days we “lived” at the airport, then were in self-isolation at the hotel for five days. When it became known that all transatlantic flights were canceled, we returned home. Everyone was terrified of getting sick, as it’d mean that the shift change of the 24th UAE was disrupted and they’d have to stay for wintering for another year. In Kyiv, we were quarantined, did a PCR test, which fortunately showed that both our team and the seasonal squad were healthy. After 2 more times we went to the airport hoping to fly away, but each time we returned. Finally, the third attempt was successful, and we flew to Brazil through Qatar, and then to Punta Arenas. While still in Kyiv, information turned up that the ship, supposed to deliver us to the station, was quarantined, but since we had to spend 14 days in isolation, it didn’t frighten us. After spending the assigned two weeks, we went to the station, where we replaced 24 UAE, on the Chilean ship Betanzos.
— Recently, there was a man in Antarctica who fell ill with COVID. How was it? How did it end?
— We have even less information on covid in Antarctica than you do. We read about this case in the news. Antarctica is an extensive area, and the station where the coronavirus outbreak occurred is located 500 km north of us on King George Island.
— Was there panic? How did you feel?
— No, of course, there was no panic; I sympathized with the winterers, but whatever happened has happened. I think the Chileans coped with the situation. There is an airfield on this island, planes fly there, and, if needed, you can always evacuate a sick person.
Now the station is wintering; there are only six scientists: a biologist, two geophysicists, two meteorologists, and an ozonometer specialist, and also specialists like a mechanic, diesel operator, doctor, system administrator.
At the end of January, scientists were waiting for a seasonal expedition, so there’ll be more scientific workers. A seasonal team of scientists and technicians began their journey on January 20. With their arrival, work on modernizing the station’s premises will unfold in full force:
“First, we need to install a new crane, which will be used to replace the station’s diesel generator system. To do this, it’s necessary to carry out a bunch of cementing and concreting: 3 containers left Ukraine with numerous building materials. Replacing the power grid will begin throughout the station, primarily outside the building, so drilling of basalt rocks and installing new poles will take place. Also, a new cool satellite dish was purchased at the expense of sponsors; in fact, it was donated. To install it, you also need to carry out a bunch of concreting… That’s in general,” Yevhen Dykyi, Director of the National Antarctic Science Center, shares his ambitious plans.
— What do scientists do?
— Before wintering, a research program should be drawn up, where it’s spelled out exactly what each specialist should do. It means a mandatory continuation of measurements, some of which the British started. Such a long series of data are of colossal value, as they make it possible to trace the dynamics of measurements of various environmental parameters. For instance, measurements of the ozone level at the station have been carried out since 1957, with the same method; it’s precious since it makes it possible to see exactly how the ozone layer changes, what affects it, and what it leads to. It was with the data of our station, which was still the Faraday station then and belonged to the UK, that they discovered the ozone hole.
Anna Soina also performs the duties of an ozone meter specialist at the station. Every day, according to a special schedule, she takes measurements of the ozone concentration. It’s five to sixty measurements per day:
“It’s vital to carry them out on time,” the scientist notes, “I also test the Dobson spectrophotometer, and had processed part of the ionograms until December, then we decided to give this work to my colleague.”
Meteorological observations, magnetic field observations, the study of the atmosphere upper layers, the so-called ionosphere, measurement of ELF noise at frequencies of 5-25 Hz, including the principal modes of Schumann resonance, biological, oceanographic, seismic observations are mandatory.
— Tell us about your daily routine. How’s your day at the station, is there a lot of free time?
— The daily routine varies greatly due to busyness, the measurement schedule, the availability of shifts. We have lunch at one o’clock in the afternoon and dinner at seven; at other times, everyone’s busy with their work, as it’s convenient. There are obligatory day and night shifts, full-scale cleaning of the station, public works at the station.
— The amount of free time is also individual; someone has more of it, someone has less in a certain period, then it may be the other way around. Everyone chooses rest for themselves: you can play billiards, chess, checkers, monopoly, watch a movie, read a book, work. You can ask a biologist to go to the field with him to count the penguins; you can go skiing (in winter) or walk the island on foot. You can go to search for fish fauna for biological research (fishing), go in for sports, cook something, or make something.
— Since my work doesn’t imply expeditions, I love trips to the islands most, walks around our island, especially with a camera (my smartphone), and when the weather is bad and I can’t go out, I work on a draft dissertation, read scientific articles and textbooks, although I also learned to play billiards.
— How often do you leave the station? What do you drive?
— We leave whenever we require, can, and want. In winter, we go on skis and snowshoes, in summer, most often by motorboat. You can walk around the island.
Living conditions, connection to outside world, friends in Antarctica, and life of a polar explorer
Now Vernadsky Research Base is being actively modernized. Their arrangements will extend the life of the station:
“We’re now changing the main life support systems, which we hope will extend the life of the station for another 10-15, well, a maximum of 20 years. But it’s a top end, the primary building materials won’t withstand further. These materials, i.e. concrete, wood, and metal, are constantly under the influence of extreme climatic conditions: 100% humidity, 270 days of precipitation a year, regularly strong winds up to 40 m/s nearly all the time. Besides, not constant summer frosts but almost daily ones, transitioning through “zero” from minus to plus and vice versa. This destroys buildings. No other station, except for the Russian one, has such an age of structures. All others, without exception, replaced structures of the late 20th century with the 21st-century buildings long ago,” the director of the NANC.
The scientists live in cubicles, and according to Anna, the conditions there are very good. You can even look at the interior of the station, look into the Antarctic bar or library from home by visiting a 3D tour of the station.
— Where do the products come from? Who’s cooking?
— We don’t go hunting (Anna jokes). Of course, we buy food for a year. There are large refrigerators at the station, where it’s stored. Usually, the cook prepares the food, and it’s the hardest job at the station, but since we’re left without a cook, we’re on duty by turn every week. We often help each other.
We contacted Anna only by correspondence, because the Internet at the station is limited, and it’s impossible to call by video, and landline phones seem to be such a rudiment that no one uses them anymore.
— Where does the Internet appear from in Antarctica? How do you connect with other continents?
— We have satellite internet. You can also make a satellite phone call, but if you have instant messengers and e-mail, it makes little sense. There’s also a post office at the station, but the letters leave about once per winter.
— Are the scientists of polar stations friendly with each other?
— Of course, in polar conditions, it’s essential to be one team. The closest station to us, Palmer (USA), often helped the Ukrainians. This assistance is especially important when it’s necessary to evacuate patients. They have an icebreaker and can nearly always get through to us. We’re friends with the British, we “look after” the Wordy Museum (the old British station F); we continue the research they started and the British scientific ship JCR comes to visit almost every year. We always congratulate each other on Midwinter, New Year, Christmas.
— You have a photo where you’re standing in a dress on the beach, right in the water among the ice floes. Wasn’t it cold?
— In summer, when it’s partly cloudy, or clear, it’s not just warm but hot. We photographed near the ocean in such weather. It was cold only when you get into the water, but we all swam in the midwinter and therefore, it didn’t scare me anymore.
— What’s the weather like at the station?
— We’re in a maritime climate, so most often, it’s cloudy and humid here. In winter, there can be frosts down to -20 or more, it can cover everything with snow up to several meters. It can be windy up to 30-40 m/s. When the wind is strong — it’s interesting — you can almost learn to fly. But in terrible weather, we sit at the station, where it’s warm and cozy. In general, the weather can change quickly, and it’s the primary danger of long-distance trips; in the station’s history, there were cases when people left for work on distant islands and couldn’t return because of a dramatically changed ice situation or wind.
On her Facebook, Anna constantly uploads photos of penguins. She was even fortunate enough to observe how little penguins hatch and grow.
In December, the news passed around the Ukrainian Internet that penguins hatched at the station on St. Nicholas Day, and they were named Nicholases.
— Do you name the penguins?
— We don’t give them names. Although we remember some of them; now there’s a little penguin right near the station, who always goes somewhere, then appears, and its parents punish it. The first time, when it disappeared, I was anxious about the little one. The second time I went to look, we found it behind a stone a few meters from the nest. Now they’re calmі.
— Why are there so many penguins? Do they really live near the station?
— There are more than 2 thousand penguins on our island, they literally live close by. Galindez Island is now one of the largest colonies of Gentoo penguins in our latitudes. It’s known that under the British and our first expeditions, there were no penguins. Biologists analyze why there are so many of them now, but apparently, our island is convenient for them.
— What other birds, animals, or fish live in Antarctica?
— I can’t talk about the whole of Antarctica, but we have 3 species of penguins (Gentoo, Antarctic, and Adelie), crabeater seals, Weddell’s seal, leopard seal, blue-eyed shags, gulls, sheathbills; among the fish, Longfin ice devil is the most common. And of course, krill! There are also seasonal animals and birds, like whales, seals, skua.
— Is someone guarding them? Are their populations disappearing?
— The Antarctic environment, including biota, is protected by international law. You can’t touch anything here, you can’t take anything out of here, you can’t bother anyone here. I cannot say anything about a decrease or increase in populations; it’s the work of biologists, and such estimates require long-term data, especially considering that many factors change the number of a particular species.
— Have you been to the South Pole?
— You can take a map and see the location of the Vernadsky station. We are near the Antarctic Peninsula on Galindez Island in the Argentine archipelago. To reach the pole, you need to overcome hundreds of kilometers of mountain ranges, glaciers, and snow. Even scientific expeditions in the early 20th century didn’t go to the Pole from our latitudes, because it’s very far and very hard.
— On the website of the National Antarctic Science Center, there’s a picture of a winterer in full gear. What did you take with you in your suitcase when you went to Antarctica?
— Everything that I considered necessary. Embroidered shirts, I love them very much; two dresses, because on Saturday we always have a festive dinner. Unfortunately, we had to leave half of our belongings at home, because of the road difficulties, but you can get by with little.
— Do you miss home when in Antarctica?
— It’s probably awful, but no, I don’t miss it. The distinctive feature of my psyche is that I feel comfortable anywhere, and even more so in Antarctica. Plus, I know that it’s only for a year; I was preparing myself for the winter. Besides, the Internet helps a lot. The ability to communicate with family and friends every day is wonderful.
Is it possible to get to the station if you’re not a scientist?
Surprisingly, yes. The Vernadsky Research Base is open for tourists, but the NANC isn’t engaged in the tourism business, so those who want to get here should solve the issue of transfer to Antarctica on their own.
“Since the geographic location of the station is almost the closest to the “mainland,” tourists often come to the Vernadsky Research Base. They only conduct tours around the station and the surrounding area, invite you to the Antarctic bar “Faraday” and take you to the Wordy house, one of the first British bases in 1937. We even have Ukrainian souvenirs: the Antarctic hryvnia and magnets,” the NANC told us.
However, the station is now closed to tourists: all due to quarantine. At the NANC, they say that after it ends, tourists will definitely be invited again, but when it happens is still unknown.