Concordia, Antarctica

"Men Wanted for hazardous journey. Small wages, bitter cold, long months of complete darkness, constant danger, safe return doubtful. Honor and recognition in case of success."   — Ernest Shackleton (1874—1922), newspaper announcement before his Endurance Expedition.
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Note: I've sold this trip pictures to Sygma/Corbis... and those idiots lost most of them !!! Read about it. They only sent me back 40 of them that they found, which I added to the page on 2001/01/02.

360° panoramic picture of Dome C station. More here.

Above: 360° panoramic picture of Dome C station. More here.

360° picture of Dome C, February 1997, the new Franco-Italian base located on the high Antarctic plateau, one of the coldest place on Earth. The 1st summer campaign was in 1996-97, and I was there with a colleague. The station should be operational for winter operations sometimes between 2000 and 2003. Dome C is one of the local summits of Antarctica, a.k.a. Dome Charlie by the Americans who did do some drilling 20 years ago and a.k.a. Dome Circé by the French.

The summer temperature oscillates between -25°C (-13°F) and -50°C (-58°F), and the winter temperature between -50°C (-58°F) and -80°C (-112°F)! I wouldn't want to be there in winter... but I eventually did go ! Fortunately the wind is very low on average, with 13 m/s being the highest recorded, so there isn't too much wind chill.

From left to right (point on the image or use [space] to view it on the Status Bar): the mess tent with the bulldozer up front, the kitchen container with the generator/melter up front, 4 containers (radio, hospital, workshops), the drilling platform with some storehouse tents up front, some boxes, the sauna, sleeping tent #1, the sodar container (small in the back), sleeping tent #2, the bathroom tent, sleeping tent #2 and #4, an old HD40 vehicle, some new containers, some stuff, fuel tanks, vehicles of the traverse from DdU, more fuel tanks, and my shadow pointing more or less north.

Group picture of people from the Dome C 2000 summer campaign and the traverse.


The year 2000 trip to Dome C was much faster than the previous one which took 17 days. After flying through Rome, Milan, Los Angeles, Sydney and finally Christchurch, we got on a C-130 at 3 in the morning and landed in Terra Nova Bay. Just one day there and off to Dome C we went with just a stopover in Mid-Point Charlie where a few Americans are running experiments in the miserable cold and wind. I arrived in Dome C 4 days only after leaving Italy, having changed time zone 6 times and blasted by the altitude. Since I couldn't find any of my equipment on arrival, I went to sleep after barely saluting the people I already knew from past missions...

Right: Group picture of people from the Dome C 2000 summer campaign and the traverse.

Installation of the Meteoflux system and one of the sodar antennas.

After a couple days I managed to find all my equipment scattered in different parts of the station and began to put it together. I had a Sodar (same as 3 years ago, but with some new control software I wrote), a turbulence mast measurement (same as 3 years ago, but I had broken the expensive humidity sensor before leaving Italy) and a Lidar belonging to another team that was finished assembling at midnight the day before I left... Lots of problems the first two weeks: the Lidar broke down after a day, the CR-10 wouldn't work because of a broken power supply, the Meteoflux had electric contacts problems with the cold, the Sodar was doing acquisition 4 times too fast... I set up my equipment in a lonely tent, half a km south of the station.

Right: Installation of the Meteoflux system and one of the sodar antennas.

The station had not changed all that much in 3 years: same cold, same old tents for sleeping, same people making the same holes in the ground... They had welded together a bunch of containers to make extra rooms, a hospital, a bathroom, a decent kitchen, a living room and the radio communication room. Some people barely go out of it at all. Talking about people, there's a lot more than 3 years ago, about 30 to 45, depending on the twin-otter flights and the arrivals of the traverse.

Polar exploration is not what it used to be. Nowadays the worst things are the sometimes unbearable heat in the sleeping tents and how much weight you put on during a stay. Long gone is the time of Buy at Amazon.comNansen, Buy at Amazon.comShackelton, Buy at Amazon.comAmundsen and Buy at Amazon.comScott. Although I doubt I would have been more sick on the Fram, the Endurance or the Discovery than on the Astrolabe or the Italica, but the travels are certainly faster. Not that traveling has become fully automated, quite the contrary: starting one of our old snowmachine on a cold Dome C morning is quite a challenge: the battery's dead, the pulling cord is half ripped, there are chunks of ice in the fuel (if there's any fuel at all in the tank)... Going by foot is usually faster.

Something else truly hard to cope with: the Champagne for New Year's Eve was frozen ! Fortunately the bottles hadn't exploded; we had to thaw them quickly above the kitchen stove before being able to cheer. OK, not everything was going so bad; for instance we happened to have the best cook in Antarctica, Jean-Louis Duraffourg, 9 winter-overs and numerous summer campaigns.

The drill itself out of its case.


That summer there were more experiments, even if not all of them were doing well: geomagnetism (external component of the magnetic field), micrometeorites, seismology, Epica (ice core), atmosphere physics, astronomy...

Prepping the ice drill onto the wire that will bring it down the hole.

Right: The drill itself out of its case.

Left: Prepping the ice drill onto the wire that will bring it down the hole.

The Epica project of ice drilling that started 3 years ago during my first stay in Dome C was not going so well. The previous year they had jammed the drill at 786m and left it there, so this year they had to move the drilling platform and start all over again. The snow accumulation is about 3cm/year, meaning that the deeper you drill, the older the ice is. 10m = 137 years, 100m = 2400 years, 500m = 21000 years and 750m = 45000 years (the relation is not linear because the pressure increases with the depth). Our nearest neighbors, the Russians of Vostok 550km away, have done the deepest ice core in the world down to 3623m; this is about 500 000 years old and covers 4 complete climatic cycles. They stopped 50m from a sub-glacial lake and will resume when they find a way to explore the lake without contaminating it (Nasa is working on it, also linked to exploration of the sub-glacial seas of Europa). The cores taken out are sliced and analyzed for physical properties, chemistry and isotopes (18O, 10Be...). Past climates can be found knowing the links between some isotopes and temperature or humidity. Past volcano eruptions provide a precise dating scale, leaving thin layers of particular chemicals in the ice on precise years. More info on Vostok.

The drill going down into the ice.

Now that politicians are running scared of the global warming (not enough IMHO, we should hang a couple of them on that issue), there is money for deep ice core projects like Epica. Understanding past climates is the key to understanding what is going to happen in the next decades/centuries, between the CO2 and methane raise, the CFC, the Ozone depletion... The 3 hottest years of the last 120 and probably 600 years were all in the 1990s ! Some recent results from the latest ice cores show that the climate can have very unstable periods with catastrophic changes in very short time: there's been once in the past a drop of average world temperature of 14°C in 20 years !

A scientist cutting up and examining ice cores in the 'cold lab'.

Right: The drill going down into the ice.

Left: A scientist cutting up and examining ice cores in the 'cold lab'. Purchase this image on a royalty-free CD archive compilation

Not only do they drill the ice, but they also covered it with a positioning network to know in which direction it flows. In order to do this somebody comes every year to take the position of some poles scattered kms away from the station. They use a French positioning system, Doris, much more precise than the GPS, but much less practical too.

The white room where melting of snow and subsequent analysis of micrometeorites is performed.

Other scientific projects include a search of micrometeorites, a few microns in size, by melting snow. Their main problem is getting very clean snow (they are polluted by engine fumes even kms away). There are better places in Antarctica where to find (micro)meteorites, the so-called blue-ice areas where the combined action of the wind and sublimation ablates the ice away, concentrating those space rocks in small area. But there they have no idea how long ago the meteorites fell. Here, the computation is easy enough: 3 cm of snow per year. So just melt a few square meters on 3 cm depth and you know how many micrometeorites fall each year, a big cosmological question right now (2000 tons per year ? 20000 tons ?).

Another big and interesting project is a global cartography project of the area between Dome C, McMurdo and Terra Nova Bay. They fly a Twin-Otter measuring just about everything they can: surface topography, underground ice structure with a radar, bedrock topography with another radar, presence of sub-glacial lakes, magnetic anomalies, gravimetry... They kept flying in and out of Dome C for weeks. Indeed the detection of many sub-glacial lakes in Antarctica is very interesting, not much is known about them and the most publicized, the Vostok lake, is about to be breached. The analysis of the last ice-core from Vostok for micro-organisms has shown either nothing (French analysis) or the presence of cat germs (American analysis) ! More on those hardy forms of life here.

Right: The white room where melting of snow and subsequent analysis of micrometeorites is performed.

The huge 'CAT' vehicles used in the traverses.

The Traverse

This year the Traverse, which has been led by Patrice Godon for the last 10 years, managed to do three round trips between Dumont d'Urville and Dome C during the brief summer: 7000km bringing 370 tons of equipment and fuel each time. A lot of this equipment is destined to build the Concordia station, the future permanent base in Dome C. Winter overs should start within 3 or 4 years. I don't know who will be crazy enough to volunteer for a winter-over in this dreadful place, but they'll really have to be. As far as I know only 2 winter stations exist on the plateau: Amundsen-Scott at the pole and Vostok.

Right: The huge 'CAT' vehicles used in the traverses.

Arrival of new equipment on the Traverse.

Left: Arrival of new equipment on the Traverse.

Some of the traverse trailers ready to head back to DdU.

Left: Some of the traverse trailers ready to head back to DdU.

On their way up, some of the big Caterpillar vehicles can pull up to 7 trailers behind them (above). On the way down, the empty Teflon sleds are piled up together (left) as the empty vehicles run down the slopes.

One of the feet of one of the Concordia buildings.

Construction work

The work on the new Concordia station started this summer but did not start so well. The crane used to set up the big metal structure broke down almost at the beginning and we had to wait for parts to arrive from the other side of the world (the warm part). The future station will have two big octagonal buildings of 2 floors each, held onto a few cylinders (just like ancient stilt houses). This way it will be possible to raise the level of the buildings when they start being covered by snow. A way to avoid the destiny of the Charcot Station, the first French continental station, that disappeared under the snow after a couple of years in the early 50's. At the summer station we simply keep the buildings on skids and pull them once a year to bring them on top of the few cm of snow that fall yearly.

Left: One of the feet of one of the Concordia buildings.

Placing the feet at their proper positions.

Right: Placing the feet at their proper positions.

The work assembling those heavy metal pieces is harsh and unforgiving. One day that I was bored I went to lend a hand to the construction workers. Just imagine sitting 15 meters up on a (cold) metal bar, wearing a harness above a cumbersome suit and climbing struts in bunny boots ? It's also much more windy up there as my own wind measurement proved. And those guys are up there all day...

The metal frame of the building under assembly

Many designs were considered for the future Concordia station. From the current tents (cold) to wooden buildings (fire risk ?). They finally selected to erect those heavy metal structures.

Right: The metal frame of the building under assembly Image available as a free wallpaper

A view of the building under assembly.

Left: A view of the building under assembly.

Arrival of Laurence de la Ferrière at Dome C.

Laurence's arrival

Right: Arrival of Laurence de la Ferrière at Dome C.

Women have always been a rare and strange breed in Antarctica. Most often there aren't any. During my winter over, women were just some kind of remote and hazy memory. In 2000, a woman did winter over for the first time in Dumont d'Urville, although they have been doing so for a long time in American and Australian stations. During summer campaigns, there are usually some women scientists. My friend and colleague Stefania has done 4 summer campaigns, including the first summer campaign in 1996. Some are much stranger, like a chubby little American who arrived in Dome C quite... eager. On her second day, since the first day must have been fruitless, she was wearing a black T-shirt with written 'Sex' in big on it. Everybody was looking at each other over dinner wondering who would take her to her word. The main problem was probably about not being seen, you know, just like the joke about riding a moped...

Laurence de la Ferrière greeted by Patrice Godon upon her arrival in Dome C after 2 months alone on her skis.

This being said, there was one very special woman who arrived in Dome C on 1999/12/30: Laurence de la Ferrière. Special because she came by foot from the South Pole ! Experienced Himalayan climber, it was her second Antarctic ski expedition: a couple years ago she walked from the Weddell sea to the South Pole. This time she flew more than she walked, using a sail in the wind. She was lucky that the wind was in the right direction and strong enough more than half the time, which is not usually the case between the Pole and Dome C. She got here just in time for New Year, entering 2000.

Left: Laurence de la Ferrière greeted by Patrice Godon upon her arrival in Dome C after 2 months alone on her skis.

Impromptu welcome party for Laurence.

Right: Impromptu welcome party for Laurence.

A French TV team had been here waiting for her for 3 weeks. They took the opportunity to do a complete documentary on Dome C, filming the labs, the advencement of the work on the new Concordia station, the dinners... They even came to film me: while in the lab working with Jenny's pictures in the background, covered with ice while cross-country skiing, dressing and undressing, helping the Chef preparing Christmas and New Year's meals... Actually they got so interested (or bored !) that they filmed everything they could lay their eyes on. They decided not only to make a movie on Laurence, but also another one on us. The movie aired on Christmas day in France, and guess what... they showed me taking a fall while cross-country skiing.

Laurence having her frozen toes checked by the station's doctor.

Left: Laurence having her frozen toes checked by the station's doctor.

A lot of people seemed to be in a contest for the most original New Year's 2000: from flying the Concorde around the globe to changing the time zone of some Pacific islands... I have to say that ours was quite original: a bunch of scientists, technicians, mechanics all stuck together, getting drunk and dancing with the three available women. Well, just like everybody else ! And we were the very first ones on the planet to see the new sun... since we saw it all night there was no beating that !

The personnel came and went following the flights of the Twin-Otters. One of those crashed, without getting anyone badly hurt for a change. A couple times some administrative heads (from either the Italian or the French side) showed up briefly for a day to take a look at the work on Concordia but, bent down by the effects of the altitude, they soon flew back down. Almost everybody is worthless the first two days: the high altitude combined with the cold and extreme dryness makes for some awful first nights. And hangovers are worse here too: 2 beers are enough to get you hungover in the morning.

I stayed 2 months in Dome C that summer, then I quit working for the CNR and the Italian Antarctic Project, thinking I'd never come back. I had no idea how wrong I was...