Life: Balloon Science


So the real reason we’re all here at McMurdo Station, Antarctica? Science. Polar science, to be exact. This time of the year—the austral summer—is the time when most scientists conduct their research. It’s light outside for 24-hours each day, and the summer temperatures are more bearable than the winter ones. Science projects supported by the National Science Foundation cover anything from aeronomy and astrophysics to zoology.

When I arrived here, I was surprised to find that some of my favorite French scientists from the 2005-2006 season had returned to work on an international collaboration project called Concordiasi (www.cnrm.meteo.fr/concordiasi/). This team of twelve just launched nearly 20 huge balloons into the atmosphere above Antarctica. They’re currently floating around up there measuring “atmospheric parameters.”

I got to witness one of the balloon launches, which went off from the Concordiasi science camp—a few big mobile structures set up on the sea ice within walking distance from McMurdo Station.

When I arrived, the light was flat, and the temperatures hovered just about 0°F. Scientists were scurrying around in their Big Red parkas, fretting over the payload, getting the big balloon aired up, making frantic last-minute adjustments.

I mainly tried to stay out of the way but stepped up to take a look at these solar panels on the payload, which keep instruments inside running as long as the two-story-high balloon floats in the atmosphere, gathering data.

Once everything was set, Alain started counting down on a megaphone: “Cinq…quatre…trois…deux…un!!” and then the balloon let loose with an explosion of activity. Alain shouted out directions while two scientists guided the payload safely into the air. “Don’t move, don’t move,” he yelled in French, and everyone finally relaxed when he repeated: “Parfait! Parfait!” Perfect. Perfect.

After such a manic release, the big balloon floated away quite peacefully into the atmosphere above Antarctica…

…and the scientists were all smiles.

Philippe and Alain, above, are two of the scientists I know from their previous work at McMurdo.

They rallied me to join them in a group photo, which of course I didn’t refuse. Jerome and Jean-Noel are in this photo, too—two more of original team I knew from ’05-‘06. These scientists are a special group—full of life and laughs. I was sad to see some of them leave this week already, back to offices in Paris and Toulouse, where the real work begins and ends.

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