When I got confirmation that I was headed to Antarctica, my first thought was about the type of things that you see on TV whenever someone goes about snow: igloos and snowmans.
A snowman is a symbol for Winter and cold but, even though we have more snow here than anywhere else in the world, you cannot build them here.
Snow in Antarctica is just too “dry” to build anything. A snowman need snow a bit more “pasty”, like modeling clay for instance. We get that snow with low temperatures, but not that low. The consistency is due to having part of the snow melted and that water working as a type of glue for the snow particles, which allows to make balls, arms, feet and even a fort.
We have, in a best case scenario, 2 or 3 days of snow like that one each year, right about the peak of Summer. The rest of the year is simply too cold and dry.
Obviously that one of the first things that I did once I step foot on Antarctica was a snow ball. It was impossible. It was like making a sand ball out of dry sand in a warm day at the beach. The snow simply falls apart into small chunks right off our hands.
Another curious thing around here is that the state of the snow varies a lot from the place were we are at and the time of year. Its very difficult to predict before putting my hands on it, but during my travels I got snow that dug just like sand, other times it fell out in almost geometrical blocks and even, in very cold days, there’s a layer about 15 to 20 cm bellow surface that it is completely frozen to a point where we need pick axes to dig in it.
Snowmans are out of question but if we get a day with the right type of snow, an igloo is way more feasible idea.
And we did just that in one of my last days of first Summer. The work for the season was under control and in one of the last weekends with summer people there, we decide to erect an igloo.
At first the event was supposed to be part of a “friendly” contest between new and old Winterers. In the first hours we were all into the competition. We wanted to show that, even before going through a proper austral winter, we were qualified to edify real estate.
But our Winter team was in it in full. There was 10 of us there that day and so we needed a full grown igloo for a start.
The strategy was simple. Half of the team was in an area with solid enough snow, digging proper blocks of it with wood saws, shovels, flame-throwers, etc… That day every available and usable tool in the station was requested for that project. The other half was carefully setting those blocks in an ascending spiral in order to build the thing.
We were so ambitious with the project that at dinner time we only had about half of the building. The problem was that we still had about a meter left in the wall before we could close the ceiling and only two or three of us were tall enough to put new blocks in our monument. Yes, we end up building a frozen complex and we almost needed scaffolding to finish it. Well, we ended up needing to put a couple of bigger block in the inside to use as a step ladder for the last pieces.
It took a couple of days to finish it, but once it was, all 13 of us could fit in there, with some of the folk even standing in the middle.
During the next Winter this igloo was used as a shelter outside of the shelter. There’s a reason why Eskimos live inside these things. It sounds counterintuitive but snow is an excellent heat insulator. Its weird if we think how cold snow is, but if we lower our temperature referential just a bit, its easy to understand why. Temperatures in Antarctica change a lot, probably more than many parts in out planet. In the peak of Summer we can enjoy a nice +0.5 ºC but in Winter things go as cold as -50 ºC. Yet snow (well, the inside of it at least) can keep a surprisingly constant -19, -20 ºC… during the whole year!
Yes, in a Summer with -5 ºC outside it doesn’t make much sense to sleep inside of an igloo at -20 ºC. But on a cold Winter night with -45 ºC outside, an igloo that is 25 ºC warmer is like a fireplace on a rainy day.
The official inauguration was in a night where we were able to see one of the most magnificent auroras of that year. The great thing about that day was that everything was improvised or planned on top of the knee. It was a Saturday just like many others before it, in a part of the year where night and day were sharing the sky equally, more or less. After dinner, the smoking members of our crew went out to the steps of C module to light some stuff on fire and were greeted by a dark sky full of bright green and red lights. They went inside screaming, since for most of them it was the first time looking at a proper aurora, and the rest picked up their cameras and warm clothes and the whole gang spent most of that night outside taking all sorts of photographs. After exhausting every memory card available, or simply because we were taking pictures of the sky for more than 3 hours… in freezing Antarctica, we went and continued our lovely night inside of the igloo.
Advantages of drinking stuff in an igloo? Everything remains fresh… sometimes even too much…