On a climate mission in Antarctica
Predicting future climate change is no walk in the park. Especially when your work place is in Antarctica. We asked operations manager Henrik Törnberg to take a walk down memory lane and tell us about the great research expedition he led in 2017.
Not many people can write in their resume that they have lived and worked on the planet's coldest, most desolate and most inhospitable continent Antarctica. But fact is that one of these people is our own operations manager Henrik Törnberg, who since 2018 has been working behind the scenes with security and logistics for our guests and guides. During the winter of 2017, Henrik spent two months as expedition leader at the Swedish research station Wasa. We asked him to tell us about his experiences to give us a unique insight into what it is like to work and live in such an extreme environment like Antarctica.
Dronning Maud Land is one of the least studied regions of Antarctica in terms of variations in ice sheet thickness and dynamics. There are plenty of potential study sites in the mountain ranges, whose peaks are sticking up through the ice sheet 200–300 km from the coast.
The purpose of the research project MAGIC-DML was to reconstruct how the ice sheet thickness in Dronning Maud Land has varied through time. The results of the surveys provide the necessary basic knowledge, for example, verifying the results from climate models in order to understand the polar regions’ climatic factors and climate variability.
Henrik, how did you end up in Antarctica and in this project from the start?
I've been working in the polar regions my whole adult life really. I moved to Svalbard as a student in 1998 and stayed there as a guide for almost seven years. In 2004, I changed base camp from Svalbard to Stockholm University's glacier research station at the foot of Kebnekaise in Swedish Lappland. There, in roadless terrain, I lived six months a year and led the field program for glacier research and the operation of the station. In 2011, it was time for new challenges as a research engineer at the Swedish Polar Research Secretariat. My responsibility there was the land-based research expeditions in both the Arctic and Antarctic.
Tell us about the great research expedition you led in Antarctica?
I traveled to Queen Maud Land in Antarctica in January 2017. The team, with eleven people from Sweden, Norway, Great Britain and the USA, consisted of four researchers, technicians, mechanics, a mountain guide, doctor, chef and me, who were both project manager and expedition leader in the field. Preparing and planning the trip took many years because it was postponed several times.
What did you do exactly?
We traveled over large areas between different nunataks that protruded from the ice and looked for boulders with quartz crystals to be able to take rock samples, date the decay and get an idea of the history of the melting. We spent a total of twenty nights in tents.
What were the safety risks during the expedition?
The safety on the mountains and glaciers went far beyond what is normally associated with the mountain guide profession. We had practiced a lot working in rope teams to avoid falling into glacier cracks and save each other if needed. Then, of course, we had to consider the safety around vehicles (an accident in Antarctica can have serious consequences) fire safety, danger of carbon monoxide poisoning in tent camps and various risks that existed in the daily life at the station.
Tell us what a typical day could look like?
Our primary purpose was of course the science fieldwork but sometimes that could not be separated from making sure the camp functioned daily. That meant we all had to take our part in the various daily camp activities such as melting snow for food and drink, cooking meals, washing up, refueling the trucks and snowmobiles, recharging batteries for the GPS, drills, toughpads and various other communications devices that we had. Some days we were able to leave a person in camp to take care of a few of these tasks, but other days we were all out in the field so those tasks were left to the evenings.
What was it like doing fieldwork in Antarctica?
hen we were out in the field, we were a team of eight people based in a field camp. We had three large tents; two for sleeping and one that served as a mess tent for cooking, eating and storing spare food and equipment. We slept four persons in each tent, used a sleeping system that consisted of a folding camp bed (to keep us off the cold snow beneath), a roll-mat and two sleeping bags. We also had a small toilet tent, pitched at a discreet distance from the other tents.
You were there during the Antarctic high summer when the sun never settled. How was the weather and temperature?
The temperature varies greatly depending on how many meters above sea level you are positioned. Wasa is located just 300 meters above sea level. There was often radiant sun 24 hours a day and five to ten degrees below zero when there was no bad weather and storm. I always wore sunglasses and used high sun protection on my face. Some nights the temperature could drop below minus 30 degrees, but you slept well in double down sleeping bags. It was important to stay isolated from the feet and upwards, I mean we had three kilometers of ice below. In the event of a storm, we stayed inside for safety reasons. There is enormous force in the polar wind.
What did you eat?
Meat, fish and potatoes. Instead of a cow, we ate springbok, which is what you eat in Cape Town. We brought with us the world's best chef who was also a trained nurse. Dry goods, preserves and the freeze-dried food that we used for our lunches out in the field and emergency food, were shipped there from Sweden, while frozen and fresh goods came from Cape Town. Everything was stored in our food container out in the yard.
Did you see any animals during the expedition?
As a tourist in Antarctica, you witness amazing wildlife. Whales, penguins, and lots of birds, but we were too far from the coast. I think I saw one or two birds during two months time.
What are your strongest memories?
I remember an incredible number of cool experiences from the expedition and learned a lot about myself in the leadership role which was very different. But the strongest memories are probably from the days when I was left alone in the camp while the others were out in the field, many miles away. The powerful feeling of being the only living being on a large radius on the world's most isolated continent. A completely unique solitude. Not many people get to experience it in their lives.
Was the loneliness scary?
No not at all. As a leader in a group like this, and when you lived so close together, it was very relaxing to be by yourself, get some alone time and be able to hear your own thoughts. I also realized that this expedition was a once-in-a-lifetime experience that I must enjoy because I had decided to quit the Polar Research Secretariat.
Was the expedition considered successful?
It was a big international investment with a tight schedule and high goals, but absolutely, we had a good team spirit, never had any accidents, took care of our own safety and came home with important results that can add knowledge when we are facing a climate change.
Will you be guiding during any of the 2022 PolarQuest trips to Antarctica?
That's the plan, hopefully the trip that goes in November.
Henrik TörnbergOperations Manager email@example.com
600 miles south of Cape Horn we find the world’s most isolated and remote wilderness – Antarctica. The grand and beautiful Antarctic landscape leaves its visitors in awe. The continent and surrounding islands are home to millions of penguins, seals and whales. Worth mentioning is the subantarctic island of South Georgia, a haven for anyone interested in wildlife and widely regarded as one of the most beautiful places on earth.