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17 December, 2002

The International Trans Antarctic Scientific Expedition at Site 2

Atmospheric Chemistry Diary ... Experiment during a storm

Markus Frey (Tucson AZ/ Freiburg, Deutschland)

8:00 in the morning, outside all hell is breaking loose: 35 knot winds at -30 C. The wind generator on top of the roof of the Blue Room is howling like a pack of hungry sled dogs. With great effort I fight my way against the ice-cold wind the 300 m to the atmospheric shelter, the forlorn outpost in the land of eternally frozen ice. Wind gusts tear like raging dogs on my down jacket and snow pants. The blowing snow and my fogged up ski goggles allow me only to imagine the silhouette of the blue tent out there. Luckily, the 3.5 kw generator is still running. The fueling procedure turns out to be extraordinarily cumbersome; I must try not to get any snow into the fuel tank. A breakdown of the generator and loss of power would be the end of the atmospheric chemistry experiment. Snowdrifts block the entrance of the shelter. It takes me a while to dig out the zipper and get into the small blue chemistry lab on runners. Via radio I report back to camp: "... Blue Room, Blue Room, this is the Atmospheric Shelter, I made it to my tent. Over." The fundamental rule during a storm is always to carry a VHF radio with you. Missing the camp under white out conditions would certainly mean the end. Inside the tent it's about -20 C, snow pushed through gaps by the wind covers electrical cables. The space heater I turn on appears to me as a bad joke facing an ice-cold draft through the tent. The brutal rattling of the tarp is anything but soothing, will the aluminum frame withhold against the forces of nature? I open the lid of the hydrogen peroxide detector where the humming of the four little air pumps, which suck ambient air into the instrument around the clock, is rather tranquilizing. The rhythmic pulse of the electric signal on the computer screen indicates a flawless functioning of the instruments, hard to believe under these conditions.

The most tedious part is still ahead: the exchanging of air filters at a box drifted into the snow about 10 m upwind of the tent. The small diameter plastic tubing can only be handled with bare fingers. It takes a near eternity until the sampled filters are replaced with new ones. All of a sudden my fingers become numb ... quickly back to the shelter to avoid frostbite. One problem solved, then the appearance of 3 more problems: the tent has to be sealed better against the wind to make work possible, the reagents for the chemical analysis of atmospheric trace gases need to be thawed and the electrical cables for the meteorological sensors require repair. Out here we listen closely to the pulse of nature. During an Antarctic storm however, any scientific experiment turns into a permanent battle against the elements. Several hours later, success: all instruments are running now. Patience and endurance have paid off. Over the radio Andrea lets me know that lunch is ready. Time to walk back to camp...

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