Haven of scientific research takes chill out of Antarctica job

20 Sep 2013

Claire Le Calvez, technical and logistical manager of the Concordia Research Station in Antarctica

As a manager of the Concordia Research Station in Antarctica, Claire Le Calvez oversees scientific research in one of the most remote locations on the planet. She spoke to Claire O’Connell about collecting data at the extreme.

If you think the weather has turned a bit wintery in Ireland recently, try this on for size: at the Concordia Research Station in Antarctica, winter temperatures plummet each year to around -80°C.

But Le Calvez, who was in Dublin last week to talk about her work, takes the chill in her stride. “It’s OK if you know how to manage,” she says, pragmatically.

And she should know – as the station’s technical and logistical manager, it’s her job to to make sure scientists and technicians can work year round at the remote facility on Dome C, which is ideally suited not only for studying the Antarctic but also for carrying out astronomy and other space-related research.

Falling for Antarctica

Over the last decade, Le Calvez has spent more time on Antarctica than in her native France, but she admits that initially, at least, she fell into working in the area. An engineer, she had worked as a consultant in industry for five years but wanted to take a year off.  

“I was looking for different things to do,” she says. “Maybe work as a ranger in Australia, or work with turtles in the Galapagos Islands – and I answered an ad looking for a volunteer for sciences in Antarctica, thinking that I would not get it.”

But she did get it, and spent more than a year working at the French Dumont d’Urville Station before moving inland to to Concordia, which at the time was being built as a permanent fixture.

Concordia had started as a drilling site in the 1990s, but the qualities of the location – high elevation, clear atmosphere, low wind – made it an ideal place for scientific research and France and Italy invested in building a facility there. 

Le Calvez started to work for the French Polar Institute, and one of her first missions was to overwinter at Concordia in 2005 – the only woman in a team of 13 – to get the site finished and ready for scientific research. But it was still a building site when the Antarctic winter set in, she recalls.  

“At the beginning of the winter we were still living in the summer facilities because the station was not finished,” she says. “After a month we had to move into the station because everything was freezing – but there was only one shower in the place.” 

She worked as technical manager to get the facility up and running that winter, and although she has not spent a full winter there since, she still has a central role in keeping things running today. 

“Now my job is to supervise all the technical and scientific aspects of Concordia. I am the contact point over the winter both for the technical side but also for the psychology. I am the SOS line – if people need to talk I am there on the phone for them.”


Space research on Earth

So what kind of projects go on at Concordia? Some of the work looks at the human body’s physical and mental response to living in that remote environment and adapting to the altitude, cold and stress. The European Space Agency has a particular interest in looking at useful biomarkers for these changes. The station also enables astronomy, both in the visible and infra-red spectra, as well as research into atmospheric chemistry and the study of glaciers.

Extreme cold

But while Concordia offers a haven for research, some precautions are needed in such an extreme environment. After a minimum of five days of travel to get to the site, the researchers need a bit of time to get over jet lag and acclimatise to the altitude and cold, explains Le Calvez. 

Then it’s important to be prepared for the plummeting temperatures. During summer, it’s a relatively balmy -25°C or so. “During summer, you can freeze on one side of your face and have a suntan on the other,” says Le Calvez. “That lasts about two months of the year.”

But then around the end of February the temperature will drop, usually reaching -40°C or -50°C very quickly. “We always warn people, but they are often shocked at how quickly it gets colder – but then they adapt,” says Le Calvez, who describes the levels of outdoor freezing. “At -40 degrees or so it’s time to protect your face. At -60 degrees you can go outside but you need to protect everything, you can feel it on your breath. Then at -80 degrees, when you open the door and go outside, you feel it becomes hard to breathe and you need protection, because if you breathe directly you will freeze your airways.”

At such extremes, plastic shoes and jackets will crack and even wearing glasses is a hazard, because you can develop frostbite on your nose and ears where the frame touches your skin, she adds.

DIY solutions

Yet despite the forbidding environment, Le Calvez speaks with obvious enthusiasm for Antarctica and the work she does there. “I like that it’s a melting pot of people – technicians and scientists working together,” she says. “And if you need something, or if something breaks, there is no shop so you have to be inventive, do some DIY and solve the problem. So every day we are learning something from one another.”

Le Calvez spoke about her work at ‘Antarctica – Furious Fifties – An Evening with French Explorer Jean-Louis Etienne’, which was co-hosted at the Royal Irish Academy by UCD Earth Institute and the Embassy of France in Ireland.

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Dr Claire O’Connell is a scientist-turned-writer with a PhD in cell biology and a master’s in science communication