Holding a balloon on an Arctic ice floe

February 23rd, 2008 - 12:01 pm ICT by admin  

Potsdam (Germany), Feb 23 (DPA) Juergen Graeser’s working day is dark, bitterly cold and punctuated by visits from ravenous polar bears. The German science technician is camping on an Arctic ice floe that drifts about nine kilometres per day. The temperature outside his hut: 37 degrees Celsius below freezing. Every day he sends up a balloon on a long string to check how cold the higher air is.

Germany’s Alfred Wegener Polar and Ocean Research Institute sent Graeser to join 20 Russians on the unusual work detail.

To go outside in the 24-hour Arctic night, Graeser, 49, pulls on a ski suit with double padding.

“You can choose how long you want to stay outside. Short to live. Long to die,” he said wryly in an interview by e-mail.

He uses the Internet to stay in touch with his home base at Potsdam near Berlin.

In fact, Graeser does not just send up the daily balloon with its instruments, but goes out for fairly extended sessions. He has worked out on the ice for four hours at a stretch, carrying fuel from the expedition’s supply dump to the huts where it is burned.

The party have all their supplies in place on the ice floe, which measures three by five kilometres.

“There are no delivery trips to us up here. Everything we need is in storage on the ice,” said Graeser. Being stationary, the party does not have to eat mountaineer food like dried soup or dehydrated stew.

“Our cook even makes soup with real meat and bones in it. At breakfast we get a boiled egg and bread, butter and salami,” he said.

Graeser is the first non-Russian to be admitted to one of the ice-floe expeditions.

“Russian climate scientists have been setting up expeditions on the floes since 1937,” he explained.

“When they said they would accept foreign guests on the drifting station during the 2007-2008 International Year of Polar Studies, we signed up instantly,” explained Klaus Dethloff, in charge of the AWI climate department in Potsdam, near Berlin.

Observations of Arctic temperatures are enormously important to climate research, since the region is effectively an early-warning system for changes that will happen later in other parts of the globe.

“Generally the polar latitudes are semi-blank in our maps of the world climate,” professor Dethloff said.

That is why Graeser is collecting instrument readings to send home daily to Potsdam to be used in computer modelling of the climate.

Graeser’s captive balloon has instruments that measure temperature, humidity and wind speed up to 300 metres above sea level. His Russian colleagues release two weather balloons daily which rise free as high as 30 km.

“I also have a set of ozone sensors that I send up with their balloons every second or third day to radio back data about ozone distribution in the atmosphere,” Graeser said.

The ice-floe expedition began in September, starting with the difficult hunt for a suitably large piece of floating ice.

Dethloff said, “The Russians plan to stay on it till it melts, but we’ll take Graeser off at the end of April.”

The technician says he had got used to the remoteness from civilization and everyone is even-tempered. The main alarms are when polar bears stop by or cracks develop in the ice.

At off-duty times he reads, watches movies on DVD, or hangs out with friends he has made among the Russians.

The one comfort they are short of is hot water, since it would take a huge amount of energy to constantly melt snow and keep it available on tap. Usually the men rub themselves down daily with snow, somewhat like cats cleaning themselves.

“The expedition has hot water on three days a month, when we all shower, do our laundry and take a sauna,” he said. “I suppose I do miss a nice warm toilet, a hot tub and platters of fresh fruit.”

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