Week 4

Setting to work with the friendly encouragement of some local emperor penguins

The Polarstern vessel is finally tied up to the ISPOL ice floe © David N Thomas

The Polarstern vessel is finally tied up to the ISPOL ice floe © David N Thomas

The battle and frustrations to get to our floe ended exactly three weeks (Saturday 27 November) after setting off. We finally docked at the edge of the ISPOL ice floe and tied the ship up to large anchors frozen into the ice. The day before a group had used the helicopter to scan for suitable ice floes within an area of 50 square kilometres around the ship. In the end they chose one just a few kilometres away from where the ship was stuck in the thickest ice we had encountered so far on this journey.

The resident emperor penguins are clearly curious about us and our work © David N Thomas

The resident emperor penguins are clearly curious about us and our work © David N Thomas

While the ship rammed and pounded the ice, a seven-man 'International Ice Floe Reconnaissance Team' was deployed to tour the floe on skidoos and sledges in order to locate suitable working areas. As the group assembled around the skidoos delivered by the helicopter, a group of emperor penguins arrived as if to join in and give us advice.

It is amazing how curious these birds are, but then that is hardly surprising. Imagine if the tables were turned: you and a group of friends are out for a walk on a Saturday morning, getting on with your normal daily business. In the distance you hear a lot of unusual commotion. Getting closer, you see that it is a group of penguins huddled together, all rooted to the spot and gawping at you. You try and tell me that you wouldn't be curious.

By the evening the ship had come to a final berth, and the gangway to the ice was put out, only for the inquisitive penguins to immediately gather at the bottom of it. The floe is several kilometres in diameter, and within it there are six or seven large patches (100-300 square metres) of level ice, on which it is suitable to work.

The first job was to set up a series of ‘roads’ between the patches on the floe, which had been allocated to different working groups.

Deploying a trap 50m under the ice to collect particles falling from ice above © David N Thomas

Deploying a trap 50 metres under the ice to collect particles falling from ice above © David N Thomas

These were marked out by regularly spaced black flags on tall bamboo poles. These not only serve as the demarcation for the road (and protection of research areas), but are a useful safety precaution to lead people back to the ship, should the weather turn bad.

In fact for the first three days the weather was perfect. It was cold of course, but there was bright sunshine with clear, often cloudless, blue skies. Perfect for setting up equipment, and discovering what the floe holds for us. For many the main task was to cut holes into and through the ice to deploy various sensors and collecting. This is no easy task in ice one metre thick when you need a hole more than one metre in diameter. Chainsaws, corers, drills, crowbars, ice saws and a lot of muscle power have been used. Two weather stations have been rigged up, including ten-metre-high masts carrying many meteorological sensors.

Another group deployed ‘sediment traps’, which are designed to collect material falling from the ice. By investigating the composition of this material these scientists hope to be able to find out information about how much biology is associated with the ice, and how much of this eventually sinks to the sea floor to be incorporated into the sediments. The traps and the associated equipment hang 50 metres below the ice. They were relatively easy to put in, but pulling them up again in three or four weeks time will require considerably more muscle power.

The survey team get ready, but first take instructions from the local penguins © David N Thomas

The survey team get ready, but first take instructions from the local penguins © David N Thomas

But it has not all been just a question of digging holes. Other groups have started collecting ice cores and water samples to investigate the organisms (bacteria, algae, protozoans, small crustaceans) that live within the ice and in the waters underlying it. Others are studying the structure and chemistry of the ice, and how this influences the biology and in turn how the biological activity alters the chemistry.

On the other side of the ship from the gangway an area of open water is being kept clear. The oceanographers, chemists and biologists use this to deploy their instruments, bottles and nets to study the water masses, and the organisms in the water from the surface down to the seafloor, 2000 metres below us.

Deploying the first equipment on the floe before the ship could reach it © David N Thomas

Deploying the first equipment on the floe before the ship could reach it © David N Thomas

Slowly we are getting into a routine of working on the ice during the day and then analysing the samples at night. Extremely long working hours are now the norm, as people try to maximise the opportunities that we have. Fortunately having 24 hours daylight and the "midnight sun" helps a lot to keep us awake and allow us do all we need to.

David Thomas
2nd December
68°S 55°W