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Research Group Processes and Sensing of Marine Interfaces

Research Group Marine Sensor Systems

Antarctic Project EWARP

Christmas in the Antarctic


Lina Holthusen

Institute for Chemistry and Biology of the Marine Environment

Dr Jens Meyerjürgens

Institute of Chemistry and Biology of the Marine Environment


  • Photo of a bay off Kinge George Island, Antarctica. In the foreground are penguins on a grey pebble beach, in the background are mountains, partly covered with snow. On the water is an inflatable boat with researchers.

    The breathtaking scenery in Antarctica makes Lina Holthusen, Jens Meyerjürgens and Isabell Schlangen forget all the effort they put in for their research. Lina Holthusen

  • Group photo of Jens Meyerjürgens, Isabell Schlangen and Lina Holthusen. The team is wearing red polar suits; the small Orthodox church on King George Island and a bay can be seen in the background.

    There is even a small Orthodox church on King George Island. Jens Meyerjürgens, Isabell Schlangen and Lina Holthusen spend four weeks at the Chilean research station Profesor Julio Escudero to study greenhouse gases in the uppermost water layer of the Antarctic Ocean. Isabell Schlangen

  • The research station of the Chilean Antarctic Institute (INACH) offers space for up to 60 people. Isabell Schlangen

  • Penguins are omnipresent on King George Island. Isabell Schlangen

Climate research at the far end of the world

Glaciers, penguins and whales: Antarctica has a special appeal - also for PhD student Lina Holthusen, who is currently conducting research there. About the challenges of working in remote places, the team spirit needed and the best Christmas present.

Glaciers, penguins and whales: Antarctica has a special appeal - including for PhD student Lina Holthusen, who is currently conducting research there. Here, she talks about the challenges of working in remote regions, the team spirit needed and the best Christmas present.

Lina, together with Jens Meyerjürgens from the Institute for Chemistry and Biology of the Marine Environment (ICBM) and Isabell Schlangen, a PhD student at the University of Southern Denmark, you are currently spending four weeks at the Chilean research base Profesor Julio Escudero in the Antarctic. The station is located on King George Island, one of the South Shetland Islands, about 120 kilometres off the coast of the Antarctic mainland. Quite a long way away - how was the trip?

We started in Wilhelmshaven and took flights from Hamburg via Paris and Santiago de Chile to Punta Arenas in the very south of Chile. Already this journey took us 36 hours! That was quite stressful. We were already very exhausted when we arrived in Santiago and also nervous because we had two boxes of equipment with us and had to go through customs. But everything went smoothly. From Santiago onwards, we were able to relax a bit as we travelled on together with our partners from the Chilean Antarctic Institute.

That sounds really hard. What happened next?

We caught up on some sleep at our partners' guest house in Punta Arenas, but still had a few things to organise. Due to the weather, we didn't fly on to Antarctica until four days later, on 15 December. This flight only took two hours. When we saw the first ice, we were thrilled. Landing on a gravel airstrip, however, was a bit of a bumpy ride. There are several research bases on King George Island and even a bus. We took the bus to the base - along with some tourists waiting for their cruise ships. We were shocked by the extent of tourism in Antarctica. You see at least one cruise ship every day.

You've been at the base for a few days now. Have you settled in yet?

When we first arrived, we moved into our rooms, which accomodate two persons. They are small but adequate. There is a bunk bed, a chest of drawers, a wardrobe and a window with a view outside. We share the bathroom with several other people. In total, up to 60 people - researchers and staff - can stay on the ward. There is a large lounge with sofas and a table tennis table. And you have a perfect view over the bay. There is also a work and meeting room, and a kitchen where we get three meals a day and can always make coffee and tea. Our lab is in the basement and has plenty of space.

How is the surrounding area? There are several research bases on the island.

Our station is in the small village of Villa las Estrellas. It is situated in a beautiful bay surrounded by rocks and glaciers, where you can see lots of penguins, whales and seals! The village looks a bit dull in summer: The snow melts and the barren mountains come into view. And of course the buildings here are built more for weather resistance and functionality than for looks. The surrounding stations in other countries are within

What is your research about?

We look at certain greenhouse gases, such as methane and nitrous oxide, in water samples taken from the top one and a half metres of the sea. Methane is about 25 times more harmful to the climate than carbon dioxide, and nitrous oxide is 300 times more harmful. We are interested in how these gases are produced in the Antarctic Ocean and whether they escape from the water into the air above. Or, conversely, whether the ocean absorbs the gases from the air. A wafer-thin layer covering the ocean surface is very important for this exchange of gases between the ocean and the atmosphere. We use special methods to study this boundary layer. Our field work takes place at the beginning of the Antarctic summer, when there are large numbers of tiny algae growing in the water - we call this an algal bloom. The algal bloom influences what substances accumulate on the water surface, which in turn plays a role in gas exchange.

What is the aim of your measurements?

Ultimately, we want to gain new insights into an environment that is strongly affected by climate change and has been little studied. With our data, we hope to support global climate models and better understand how climate change is already changing the marine environment and how it will change it in the future.

What does the work look like in practice?

As soon as the weather permits and a crew is available, we take a small research boat out into the bay. We take water samples, which we process in the lab and later analyse for trace gases and other parameters in Oldenburg. We also determine the temperature, salinity and currents. To do this, we use buoys and floats that are fitted with appropriate sensors and float in the water. We put them in the water from the boat and collect them after a few hours or the next day.

What is particularly challenging about this work?

There are many challenges. We can work at night because there is light. For example, we took our first samples between 6 pm and 1 am. Then we were in the lab for a long time and didn't go to bed until 8 in the morning. Luckily we were able to sleep in afterwards. Another problem is that the boat rocks a lot depending on the swell, which can make you feel sick. But we have enough help from the crew to handle the equipment.

Is it very cold?

It's summer here and the temperatures are around freezing point - it was colder on my Arctic expedition. But we still have to dress very warmly because we are travelling for many hours. Lifejackets and warm, waterproof clothing are mandatory, but sunscreen and sunglasses are also important, as the UV rays can be extreme. The thick clothing and cold fingers restrict your freedom of movement a bit. But you learn to cope. For example, we switch between different gloves: thin cotton gloves and rubber gloves for taking samples, with thick mittens in between to keep warm.

That all sounds very demanding. How did you prepare for the expedition?

The trip took a year and a half of planning and logistics. We shipped a container full of equipment six months ago. Even then, we had to think about everything we would need for our stay in Antarctica. We can't just go shopping or buy special spare parts here. A detailed plan for sampling and measurements was already in place. As some of the equipment was needed for other expeditions in the meantime, we ended up taking two more boxes with us on the plane. There was very little room for personal luggage on the plane to the station, so we took only the bare essentials.

What attracts you to conduct research in this remote region?

My colleagues and me, we are fascinated by the breathtaking scenery and the challenges posed by the harsh weather conditions. We are very passionate about our work. It is precisely because of the difficult conditions that polar regions are less explored than others, and we are very grateful to be here. We have a lot of responsibility in our small team and can organise a lot ourselves. We know how important a good team is and how well we work together. Our expertise, as well as our strengths and weaknesses, complement each other perfectly. This motivates us, even when we have to work long night shifts. We also enjoy the international networking, getting to know other cultures and seeing that climate research is also being done on the other side of the world and that the need for change is being recognised. What we are doing here is important to us.

What tips do you have for surviving in Antarctica?

A colleague from Chile keeps telling us to "relax and enjoy the ride" because he thinks we plan too much and worry too much. Another piece of advice that we often hear and know from previous fieldwork in the Arctic is: "Rest and eat when you can". Living and working here is difficult to plan. Sometimes there's a storm and we can't take samples for days. Sometimes we have to spontaneously go out into the field and spend the night in the lab. Every free minute should be used to recharge our batteries. A good team and open communication are also important because there are few opportunities to retreat and we are under a lot of stress.

Is there anything you are particularly looking forward to when you get back home?

Seeing our families and friends again, eating our favourite food and not having the constant FOMO (fear of missing out). Here you always feel you have to be doing something, creating something in the lab, enjoying the scenery, networking with people. There is very little time for real peace and quiet.

Speaking of peace and quiet, what will it be like at Christmas?

We don't know yet. If the weather is good, we'll go out on the boat and take samples. As our time is very limited, that would probably be the best present. We also hope there will be a moment when we can sit together and relax a bit.

We wish the team a good stay - thank you very much for the interview!

Interview: Constanze Böttcher

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