It is known that in Yakutia there is the Pole of Cold of the northern hemisphere, 71.2 degrees Celsius was recorded in Oymyakon. In the South Pole, in 1983, the temperature was -89.2 ° C. Aisen Afanasiev, a young geophysicist engineer, for the second time went to Antarctica to spend winter at the Novolazarevskaya Russian station as part of a scientific expedition. He will stay there to explore the magnetic field of the Earth until June 2020.
Aisen Afanasiev, geophysicist, oceanologist, polar explorer:
- To visit Antarctica has been my dream since childhood. My father instilled this desire in me. With great inspiration he read us books about travelers, about the period of the Great Geographical Discoveries, and distant lands. I especially remember the “Frigate Drivers” by Nikolay Chukovsky, which described such travelers as James Cook, Thaddeus Bellingshausen, Mikhail Lazarev, Dumont d'Urville, Ivan Kruzenshtern, etc. This desire in me intensified when I entered the Faculty of Oceanology of the Russian State Hydrometeorological University in St. Petersburg.
My interest in Antarctica was caused by the fact that this is the most inaccessible, the most distant place among all others, the only continent where there is no permanent population, and I myself am an adventurous person, I love diversity and something unusual, so Antarctica has become a kind of a challenge for me. If you wish, you can go to any country, visit almost every corner of the Earth, but just a desire is not enough for visiting the ice continent. It was not for nothing that in Soviet times polar explorers were honored as cosmonauts, because, indeed, despite all the beauty and grandeur of Antarctica, this is the coldest place on Earth, the most unfavorable conditions for life, complete isolation from the rest of civilization. I wanted to test myself if I could and also wanted to find out what it was like.
Is it difficult to get to Antarctica and what is needed for this?
- First of all, the main thing is that you have to be blessed with good health, since separation from civilization is more than a year and there is no possibility of performing complex surgery and treatment. There are only two general practitioners at the station. Secondly, if you have a clear goal, a great desire, everything will work out.
On April 6, you arrived at the Novolazarevskaya Station, is it difficult to get to it?
- We traveled to Antarctica on the scientific expedition ship ‘Akademik Fedorov.’ On November 7, 2018 it left St. Petersburg for Cape Town (South Africa). On March 16, our wintering team reached Cape Town by plane with a transfer in Istanbul, and on March 17 we were already on board ship 'Akademik Fedorov.’ March 20, ‘Fedorov’ has put out to sea, and we headed off to Antarctica.
- On the first day we run into a strong 8-point gale. We had a really rough rocking for a few days. I have no problems with seasickness, so the main difficulty for me was to eat soup, drink tea, not spill on the floor, and take a shower. On March 30 we arrived at the Molodezhnaya Station, there were works on the station conservation and scientific observations, mainly in the field of hydrobiology and glaciology. After conservation, we took away the polar explorers who worked there and moved to the barrier of the Novolazarevskaya Station near the Lazarev Sea, where we arrived safely on April 5. The next day, the KA-32S helicopter brought us, scientists, to the station, which is about 80 km from the barrier. Wintering in Antarctica has begun.
Is it dangerous to live there? Did something similar happen to you personally?
- Life in an isolated society is itself tough, you need to be a single team, work together, life at the station depends on our well-coordinated work. For example, our DPP, the heart of our station, where an engineer must be on duty 24 hours a day: if the DPP stops operating, the whole station may freeze. Antarctica itself is also dangerous: there are very low temperatures and strong blizzards.
One story happened to me personally, through which I saw all the dangers of the ice continent. On August 2, 2013 was the strongest snowstorm for our wintering - 56 meters per second, according to the Beaufort scalar it is a hurricane, plus absolutely zero visibility exacerbated the situation. We could not go outside for several days, there was gale warning, it was impossible to go to the galley to eat, our food stocks (one can hardly call it normal food: chocolates and cookies) were running out. I, a geophysicist and a more experienced 40-year-old polar explorer decided to walk to the galley after all, taking backpacks with us to take food and return. Previously, we received permission from the chief, subject to all security measures, tied up with ropes, dressed as warmly as possible, put on protective masks, took searchlights, shovels, and GPS just in case.
The first difficulties began when leaving our building: it is located about 100 meters from the galley, there were piles of snow to the very roof, we had to first dig a passage. No visibility, we couldn't see anything, but we groped the hand rope that stretched from our house and but did not reach the galley. It was 20 meters to it. We crawled along the hand rope, but gusts of wind overturned us from time to time; we, clinging tightly to each other and to the rope, were crawling on. Reaching the end of the hand rope, we had to go without it. We knew the direction where to go next to reach the galley. We were moving very slowly, we were cold and the snow hit the face painfully through the mask. Again gusts of wind overturned us, throwing to the sides, but we moved on. We crawled for too long, it felt like more than half an hour had passed, we should have already reached the galley... And here we understood that we were going in the wrong direction. But there was no fear yet, I knew that here was an experienced polar explorer with us who had wintered here more than once. What was my surprise when he suddenly stopped, pulled the ropes, which we were bound with, as if calling for a conversation. We laid down next to each other, trying to understand who said what. It turned out that his mask had fallen off, the snow hit his face very badly, and he couldn’t orient himself normally then, and he said he didn’t know where we were.
Indeed, apart from a few of our buildings, there is nothing at the station, and if you go in the wrong direction, then only endless ice deserts surround you and there’s no one around you, nobody will be able to come to the aid. Here came the fear, the realization that our decision was wrong, we could neither go back nor reach the galley. Despite the fear, after a couple of minutes we decided to calm down and think what to do next, we started to freeze, our fingers have become numb, there was no point in relying on GPS - nothing was visible on it.
And then a brilliant idea struck us: there was south gravity wind at the station, it was blowing in our backs - it meant that the north was ahead of us. Knowing the location of the buildings and the direction of the wind, we, focusing on it, crawled in the chosen direction, closely holding to each other. We crawled for about 20 minutes, but it seemed like an eternity, in such a situation you begin to pray to all the gods.
After a while we were at the top of a snowdrift about a meter high in front of the galley, but we still did not know that we were there. And between the snowdrift and the galley building, a kind of aerodynamic tube was formed, which did not allow the snow to accumulate there, there were bare stones. We made a few more moves forward, and together rolled down a snowdrift and hit against the stones hard. It was painful, but... this was a familiar place. Indeed, after a couple of steps, we touched the galley. Then there was no limit to our happiness …
Having entered the building, we were finally able to exhale, take off our clothes, probably a dozen kilograms of snow fell from us. We called the boss, said we had made it up to the galley, but we would not go back today, that we would wait for the snowstorm to weaken. In the galley there are all the conditions for life: only one cook lives there, there is plenty of food, and there is also a mess room with comfortable sofas. We went to bed right after we had eaten to satiety. Unfortunately, we could not feed our friends from our house, they had to wait another one and a half day before the wind weakened. After that, I made a lot of conclusions for myself and realized - Antarctica doesn't really forgive mistakes.
No regrets? Did not want to run away to the mainland?
- I have never had any regrets, except during that snowstorm in August 2013, when I had thoughts that maybe I had come here in vain, that I would only find my death here. But then Antarctica spared me, and I no longer showed disrespect to it.
When I was here for the first time, I was very impressed with the endless ice deserts, so grandiose and vast. During the windless period here is absolutely no noise, no civilization, except for our station. Here I saw the clearest, most starry sky, which I just happened to see in my life. Incredibly beautiful. Here is a completely different life, completely different people, a completely different way of life.
Are you not afraid of isolation and depression?
- It’s not hard yet, compared to what was in the two years of my military service, everything is pretty simple here. But it is necessary to bestow your respect, Antarctica does not forgive mistakes.
What are you especially missing in Antarctica, what is especially lacking there?
- I think most of all I lack greenery and forests. Only white snow and ice here.
How are your days going? What is your routine day?
- So far my daily schedule is as follows: I get up at 7:30 am, breakfast starts at 8:00 am. At 9:00 am general station work begins - this is the construction of new facilities, the repair of premises and pavilions, cleaning the territory, waste appears every day. Under the Antarctic Treaty here are special environmental conditions that must be adhered to, therefore, environmental work never ends.
By 10:00 am, under the condition of a quiet magnetic field, I conduct absolute magnetic observations using a theodolite with a flux-gate sensor, declinometer-inclinometer and proton magnetometer, I process the data, conduct analysis. Further, by 12:00, together with the ozonometrist, we observe the ozone layer, by 12:30 pm, I spend daily calibration of my equipment, from 13:00 pm to 14:00 pm we have lunch, from 14:00 pm to 15:00 pm we are engaged in the arrangement and repair of our geophysical pavilion and laboratory. For a long time, it was in an abandoned state, and during this wintering we decided to completely restore and bring it to perfect condition, our measuring devices will be located there. From 15:00 pm to 16:00 pm I have a sports hour, or a gym, or table tennis classes, or I chinup at home, or have a rest time, from 04:00 pm to 07:00 pm - office time for writing daily reports, articles, maintenance of PCs. From 07:00 pm to 08:00 pm - dinner, from 08:00 pm to 11:00 pm - free time, which I spend every time in different ways. You can do your hobby or learn something new, reading books, sometimes it's some kind of collective pastime. From 11:00pm to 00:00 I am engaged in measuring the magnetic field of the earth from my magnetic variation station, I finish filling out the daily log, observation forms for the day and by 00:00 after preparing daily data and a report, I send them to the Institute, contacting our radio operator and system administrator in advance to send the data correctly. Usually I am already asleep by 01:00 am.
How do you communicate with your friends, relatives?
- Skype, unfortunately, does not work here. The Internet is very slow, so I mostly use WhatsApp or email for communication. I write to my parents first of all, that everything is all right with me, and how we are doing on the expedition.
How did your parents and friends react to your first wintering?
- Everyone was extremely surprised, since my departure to Antarctica was a surprise for me and for everyone else. My parents supported me in participating in the expedition, although my mother was somewhat worried that I was going so far and for a long time, but over time she realized that I would succeed and I would be back safe and sound.
Do you visit other stations?
- Yes, we are frequent visitors to the Indians at Maitri Station, which is located a 40-minute walk from ours. We celebrate holidays together, they come to us on Victory Day, Mid-Winter Day, and we visit them on their holidays, such as Independence Day of India. In addition to holidays, we also have mutual assistance: they are treated by our doctors, they help us with the repair of equipment.
Are there any tourists?
- Yes, tourists come in the summer (December-February). A lot of them are expected in January 2020, as there will be a grand celebration of the 200th anniversary of the discovery of Antarctica.
In addition to tourists, there will also be a large number of journalists, officials, both Russian and foreign. We are preparing to meet them.
Do I need a visa to get there?
- Visas are needed only in those countries through which we go to Antarctica. For example, this time we traveled through Cape Town (South Africa), where visas for Russian citizens are no longer needed. In Antarctica itself there are no customs and security checkpoints.
How do you set up home at the polar station?
- At the station there are 3 residential buildings, each of which has its own toilet, running water. Water is supplied to the house not centrally, every Wednesday water is brought in by a special vehicle and tanks are filled at each house, at the same time another vehicle pumps out waste. Meals are served in the galley – as sailors call the dining room. Two cooks prepare food, working in 2/2 mode. There is also a mess room in the galley building, a gathering place for personnel, and here we amuse leisure. Here is a table for playing Russian billiards, table tennis, station library, virtual Russian Museum, darts, a table for chess, a film projector and a photo archive of all previous expeditions. We have a well-coordinated team, each person is important here and engaged in daily duty in the galley (in addition to his main activity), at his place and the DPP. We teach each other our professional skills, in a whole year we become completely interchangeable, each of us can be a meteorologist, a builder, a radio operator, and a satellite navigation expert.
Have you become one family, a team during this time, or you just live as neighbors?
- We are one family, one team. We cannot do without mutual assistance. It is very important to have good friendly relations during the wintering, because for a whole year in an isolated place among 32 people even one marginal member of the expedition can spoil everything.
What is the average age of a polar explorer?
- At our station, the average age is about 40 years; this is a very young age relative to previous expeditions. During my first wintering, the average age was about 50 years.
Could Antarctica surprise you on your second visit?
- The second time, of course, there were no such impressions as the first time, but I still can’t stop wondering at the people participating in such expeditions. Each of them has a great polar experience, very sincere, good-natured people who are always ready to help each other.
10 facts about life in Antarctica
- The amount of time left before leaving home is determined by the remaining number of visits to the bath (once a week). For example, “15 baths and 2 days left.”
- In the cabins (rooms) of polar explorers there are no locks from inside the cabin, you can't lock the door with key.
- There are no women at the Russian Antarctic stations for 10 months, or maybe all 12, if tourists do not arrive in the summer (December-January).
- Polar explorers have their own special third toast, like many other communities, for example, the third toast from sailors is “for those who are at sea.” Polar explorers have “for those who don't have all at home.” By this they mean the families of polar explorers.
- There are only two days in the week - Sunday and all other days. Every day is a working day, so every day is similar to another, except Sunday. On Sundays, scrambled eggs are served for breakfast.
- Drinking water is taken from a local lake, it is almost distilled, that is, devoid of useful minerals and salts, therefore, bottled water is one of the most valuable products at the station, on the same level as condensed milk.
- Every evening, members of the expedition play a jump-jump game - a favorite game of every polar explorer in Antarctica.
- The polar explorer is afraid of three things - hunger, cold and work. This is a joke; he is not afraid of cold.
- Everyone in the cabin has a radio, it cannot be turned off, it wakes up every morning at 7.30 am and welcomes to meals with a good appetite wish. Also, the radio reports important news, orders of the management, congratulates on holidays.
- Be sure to be friends with the chef. The cook and the station manager are the most important people on whom over-wintering depends.