Glossary of Antarctic terms and expressions

"Penguins are the only fish that can fly."    — Joel.
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Note: the americans living and working at McMurdo, South Pole and various field camps have developed many slang terms relative to Antarctica. So do the brits in their respective stations. I have spent too little time with them so I'll define here only some general terms and some slang that the french and italians use on their own stations and that I use throughout my own website.

The DdU airstrip upon completion in 1994.
There are 3 forms of airplane runways in Antarctica: snow, ice and rock. Snow runways are the most common but unfortunately only ski equipped airplanes like the C-130 or the Twin Otter can land on them. Ice runway can be used by regular wheeled airplanes but are rare and must be prepared and cured continuously (against snow accumulation, melting ice, potholes...); the two main ice runways are at McMurdo and Patriot Hills. As far as I know there are only two rock airstrip in Antarctica: one at DdU whose construction pissed off lots of penguins and ecologists; it was damaged by a storm shortly before its first use and was never used. The other one is at the british station of Rothera and is commonly used by airplanes like Twin Otters coming from South America to land, remove their wheels, change them to skids and takes off to happily explore the rest of Antarctica everafter.

Right: The DdU airstrip upon completion in 1994. Purchase this image on a royalty-free CD archive compilation

Automated Geophysical Observatory. Very similar to AWS stations. They are seldom more than a dot on a map as they are sometimes installed only for a few years.
Rare type of halo showing as bright patch of light in the sky, on the opposite side of the sun.
Ancient navigational instrument, which gave its name to several exploration ships over the centuries. Of note La Pérouse ship which disappeared at Solomon Island in 1780, then the first french ship to reach Antarctica in 1840 under the direction of Dumont d'Urville, and now the current ship running links between Tasmania and DdU five times per austral summer.
Vomit inducer.
Aurora Australis
Display of colors in the polar night sky caused by solar wind. More info here
When the sea ice breaks up in spring and allows access to the coastal stations with boats. Breakup can also happen when strong katabatic winds carry the ice away in winter, but the ice usually reforms quickly then.
What happens to a relationship during a winter-over.
Abbreviation of Terra Nova Bay, the italian summer station, now renamed Mario Zucchelli Station.
Bunny boots
Type of inflatable rubber boots based on vapor barrier principle; it's like having your feet inside a tire, and there's even an air valve ! They are favored by americans for their warmth but are very loose (your feet float in them) and uncomfortable (you sweat a lot in them). Nice for growing a collection of toe fungus or making fun of newcomers by claiming they must fill them with glycol...

C-130 taking off from Dome C in 1977, pushed by JATO rockets (Photo Thierry Cappelle).
C-130, C-141, C-17...
Largest ski-equipped airplane, it can land its many tons of cargo anywhere within Antarctica as long as there is a quickly build snow runway. Other larger airplanes (like the C-141 or C-17) can only land on ice runways. The skis of the C-130 are actually a military secret and if the americans sell the airplanes they don't sell the sleds. Also the C-130s often require a little bit of help to take off loaded from snow runways at high altitude, in the form of JATO rockets added near the tail, sometimes ending in fascinating pyrotechnics...

Right: C-130 taking off from Dome C in 1977, pushed by JATO rockets (Photo Thierry Cappelle).

Midway point between Terra Nova Bay and Dumont d'Urville, contains an airstrip, a snowmachine to prepare the airstrip, fuel drums and an emergency tent. Not the kind of place where you'd want to miss the departure of the airplane.

Caterpillar Challenger Traverse Special before Concordia.
See Ice Core. A november 2005 issue of the Italian Newspaper had us rolling on the floor with the headline: "Million year old frozen carrots discovered 3km deep under the Antarctic ice". Sounds like the journalist didn't quite understand what Roberto was saying during the interview...
Modified Caterpillar agricultural tractors used for ferrying heavy equipment on the High Antarctic Plateau. Between 360 and 600 horse powers depending on the version.

Right: Caterpillar Challenger Traverse Special before Concordia.

Chicken Coin Coin
Nickname for ducks (when in the plate). See duck
Record cold of -89.9°C at Vostok station, I personally enjoyed -78.6°C during the winter 2005 at Concordia and froze my nose while posing for the picture.
Main myth of Antarctica, used by the locals to keep the tourists away (see wind).
Crevasses form only when the slope of a glacier changes, an in Antarctica this happens near the coasts or in the mountain ranges. The center of the continent has slow-flowing glaciers which are safe to walk or drive on. Near the coasts, crevasses need to be filled with snow before they can be crossed by heavy sled trains.
D10, D47, D80...
Series of reference points between DdU (or more exactly its coastal station, Prud'Homme) and Dome C. Most are nothing more than a pole where to confirm GPS position but D10, D47 and D80 have Automatic Weather Stations. D10 is the actual organization and departure point of the Traverses. It's a few km from the coast and 10km away from DdU, hence its name, but don't go believing that this numbering scheme applies to the other D-something.
Abbreviation of Dumont d'Urville, the main french station. Named after the french admiral who reached Antarctica in 1840. Strangely, the admiral died in the first ever train crash shortly after his return.
Series of very flat snow summits across the Antarctic High plateau. They've been named more or less according to their altitude while being discovered: Dome A (4200m), Ridge B (3800m), Dome C (3260m), Dome F (3600m), but also Sipple Dome, Talos Dome, Law Dome... They are usually very interesting places for glaciology, atmospheric science, and if high enough also astronomy...

A special case of Halo with visible Lowitz arcs.
Nickname for penguins.
Class of atmospheric phenomenon similar to a rainbow but caused by the refraction of light by ice crystals. The most common halo, called a parhely, shows as a rainbow circle 22° around the sun, sometimes a secondary circle is visible 46° around the sun and in even better conditions other structures are visible: sundogs and Peary's arcs.

Right: A special case of Halo with visible Lowitz arcs. Purchase this image on a royalty-free CD archive compilation

High Antarctic Plateau
Basically everything that is not the coast or mountain ranges: covered by a thick layer of very flat ice and nothing else.
Soup eaten by early explorers of Antarctica, made of Pemmican, snow, ground biscuits and whatever else was available such as... penguins. All about Hoosh here.
'Mountain' of floating ice on the ocean, either coming out of a glacier or an ice shelf. The largest icebergs are tabular, can be more than one hundred meters high above sea level and hundred of kilometers in diameter, taking a decade to melt. Old icebergs are smaller and tip over when they get off balance, exposing their underlayer. More info here
Ice Core
(a.k.a. carrots): cylinders of ice extracted from under the surface with an ice drill. Ice cores are drilled with a diameter of about 10 to 15cm and extracted in sections of 1 to 3 meters depending on the conditions, the drill type and the ice fragility. The oldest ice in the world was extracted from a 3270 meters deep hole in Dome C by the Epica project on december 21st 2004: it's about 850 thousand years old and currently being studied in details.
International Geophysical Year, in 1957-1958. Many permanent stations started during this period and many nations did their first steps on the 7th continent, including Dumont d'Urville, McMurdo, South Pole... Another one is planned for 2007.
Another term for the ice cap, that is to say most of the Greenland and Antarctic high plateau.

Tabular icebergs in winter.
Jet Assisted Take Off. Rockets added to the tail of C-130 aircrafts for take-offs from snow or high altitude, and sometimes resulting in fiery but unfortunate fireworks...
(also spelled catabatic) gravity wind forming on the high Antarctic plateau and accelerating towards the shore. It can reach speeds in excess of 300km/h and last for days, carrying lots of snow with it, destroying everything that is not tightly tied up and loading everything with static electricity. More info here

Right: Tabular icebergs in winter. Purchase this image on a royalty-free CD archive compilation

Laser beam used to probe the lower atmosphere for solid particles (ice and snow crystals) and/or the upper atmosphere for chemicals (ozone and others).
Lowitz arcs
Type of secondary refractions during intense halo phenomena.
Mid-Point Charlie
Midway point between Terra Nova Bay and Dome C, contains an airstrip, a snowcat to prepare the airstrip, fuel tanks and an emergency tent.
Abbreviation of Mario Zucchelli Station, the new name of the italian station located in Terra Nova Bay. Named after the recently deceased founder of the Italian Antarctic Project.
Mountain or very large fixed rock in the path of a glacier. Nunataks tend to have their sides eroded by the ice in a characteristic way.
Instrument measuring the black body radiation of the atmosphere, thus giving precise temperature measurements remotely up to a height of about 600m.
Mass of pieces of frozen sea ice kept together by ocean currents, usually in spring as the sea-ice breaks to pieces. The chucks of ice are packed together with water holes in between, difficult to navigate and very dangerous to walk on.

 Sea ice forming pancakes.
Circular floating slabs of ice when the sea begins to freeze in autumn, soon to merge into sea-ice.

Right: Sea ice forming pancakes. Purchase this image on a royalty-free CD archive compilation

Rare type of halo showing as two bright patches of light in the sky, 90° from the sun. Usually accompanied by a faint horizontal circle running 360° at the same height than the sun.
Most common type of halo showing as a rainbow circle 22° around the sun caused by ice crystals refracting sunlight.
Peary's arcs
Type of tertiary refractions during intense halo phenomena.
Soup-looking sea water when it starts to freeze in autumn, soon to start forming into pancakes. Also known as slush.
Area of free water in the sea-ice. It usually stays free either due to a warmer sea current going up at this spot, or due to winds being more violent at this specific spot and carrying the forming ice away. Polynias can be temporary, until temperatures get even cooler, or, more rarely, permanent. Whales sometimes get trapped in polynias as they shrink.
Coastal access point to Antarctica, a few kilometers from Dumont d'Urville which is on an island. Equipment is offloaded there and then quickly taken a few kilometers inland to D10 in preparation for the Traverses to Dome C. A few people stay in the summer to organize the logistics. Named after a meteorologist who disappeared in a storm in the '50s.

Sastrugi away from Dome C.
Small snow formations on the ground, caused by the turbulence of the wind. Depending on many poorly known factors (wind speed, dominant direction, humidity...) sastrugi can be only a few cm high like in Dome C or up to a meter barely 60km away. The formation process is different than for sand dunes as they form not only from wind deposit and accretion, but also from sublimation. They are tiring and tricky to walk or ski over. The word comes from the russian 'sastruga' and is already plural.

Right: Sastrugi away from Dome C.

S4 or S+
Large hot air blower running on jet fuel and powerful enough to heat a tent in a few minutes (not, it's not a politician).
Sea ice
Frozen sea in winter. The sea ice covers with snow and becomes about 1 to 3 meters thick. In spring a combined raise of temperature, change in ocean currents and strong winds break it up and carry it away as floating chunks ('pack'). Sea ice is dangerous to walk on as it contains cracks ('rivers'), can be thin or very soft (even flexible, aka nilas) and can be carried away in its entirety by strong katabatic winds in a matter of hours. In winter sea ice triples the surface area of Antarctica.
Large chunk of ice forming when a glacier forms atop off a cliff. Very dangerous and unstable, they fall regularly.
Acoustic device similar to a Sonar but working in the air. Used for remote sensing of the lower atmosphere, this large instrument gives information such as wind speed, direction and temperature at various altitudes. More info here
Brand of canadian boots favored by various groups of Antarctic explorers. More comfortable and slightly less ridiculous looking than bunny boots.
Summer campaign
Period when most outside activity happens in Antarctica: construction, installation of scientific equipment, mating of penguins. Summer campaigns depend on the arrival of the first means of transportation, depending on sea ice for boats or temperature for airplanes. For instance in DdU it's early november to mid-March; in Dome C the summer campaign lasts from mid-november to early february; and in McMurdo thanks to early C-130 flights the summer campaign extends from early october to late april.
Bright patches of light appearing in the sky 22° to the left, right, above and below the sun. Sundogs are some kind of halo activity, light reflected from ice crystals in suspension in the atmosphere.
State of mind near the end of a winterover where the consequences can range between alcoholism, drug abuse, and extreme paranoia. Remedies include medication, straitjacket, bathing in frozen sea or getting laid on the first day of the return trip.

Last Twin-Otter departing from Dome C.
Going from one place to another in Antarctica using surface means, in other words big tractors pulling heavy sleds. For continental stations it's a much cheaper alternative than ferrying everything by airplane but it takes longer. The french have been running traverses between DdU and Dome C for about 15 years now, and they manage to do 3 traverses each summer; it takes about 12 to 15 days to drive up the 1100km between DdU and Dome C with about 150 tons of net load, and about 8-10 days to drive back down mostly empty (only some trash and returning equipment). The main difficulties are avoiding crevasses, soft snow areas, failures of engines or various parts, and following accurately the track which gets covered by the wind in its lower 600km portion. More about the Traverses.

Right: Last Twin-Otter departing from Dome C.

Twin Otter
Mean of transportation within Antarctica. The Twin Otter is an old but reliable two-engine airplane that can carry 11 passengers or 1 ton of cargo. It is equipped with sleds and flown by two pilots. And the view is great !

Modified Weasel going down the slope at DdU, 1993.
Very old american beach assault vehicle designed in the 30s and modified for Antarctic activity. Weasels were small, light and rough. They were used in many trips on many different stations, even on cross continental traverses. The original weasels exposed their drivers to the elements, but some were modified with an additional hardtop. The last ones were retired in 1994 at DdU after 60 years of activity in particularly tough conditions.

Right: Modified Weasel going down the slope at DdU, 1993.

The High Antarctic Plateau has the cold as its touristic specialty while wind is the bane of the coast (see katabatic).
Combined perceived effect of cold and wind resulting in much faster hypothermia and frostbites (more info).
Act of staying in Antarctica for the winter. I did that once in DdU in 1993 and also at Dome C in 2005. Remember that we are in the southern hemisphere, so with the difficulty in reaching the continent, the winter-overs start between february and april and last through october-december, so 6 to 10 months, to which you have to add the duration of the summer campaigns depending on contracts; so all in all some people stay for a good 16 months in a row in Antarctica. To say nothing of the crazy russians who would do 3 winterovers in a row.