The polar explorers, who are old timers in the Antarctic, jokingly call the Russian Bellingshausen polar station "an Antarctic resort". The spring comes to these parts in December. The snow is gone. The rivers start running again, and green moss and grass appear. The birds and the other inhabitants of the island come to life, along with the sound of little chicks chirping. But this seeming warmth is deceptive. The wind starts to blow, and then, a real snowstorm follows, bringing the icy breath of the Antarctic continent to the island. Then you realize, though this part of the world is called the sub-Antarctic, it's not nearly the same as the subtropics. King George Island is always at the forefront of different weather cyclones. This is why the island's rocks are always enveloped by fog.
The Bellingshausen station was opened on February 22, 1968, during the thirteenth Soviet Antarctic expedition. The members of the expedition researched the coast of the Antarctic Peninsula, and the nearby islands. As a result, they found a place for building a new station in the Ardly Bay, part of the Maxwell Bay (Guardia Nacional Bay) of the King George Island. The bay looked attractive, because it had a good place for anchorage, and a nearby lake with fresh water. The area also offered a fantastic view of the volcanic rocks. Someone gave a joking name to the lake, calling it Kitezh, after a legendary Russian ancient town that went underwater. Surprisingly, this name stuck to the lake. Sometimes in the fog, it seems, as if the reflection of the black rocks in the lake produces silhouettes of a city buried under water, and you can almost hear the church bells tolling on the bottom of the lake.
The island is a part of South Shetland Archipelago, a chain of islands stretching from the north-east to the south-west. The archipelago is separated from the Antarctic Peninsula by the Bransfield Strait, and from South America, by the Drake Passage. The Russian maps give the island a different name, Waterloo. A legend claims that the famous English pirate and explorer Sir Francis Drake was the first one to discover these islands. But the famous English pirate himself never left any records of it. Officially, the South Shetland Archipelago was discovered by a British industrialist Smith, in February of 1819. He called them New South Britain. In December of the same year, with the help of lieutenant Bransfield, Smith made nautical charts of the-yet-unnamed bigger islands. In 1821, the first Russian Antarctic expedition of Bellingshausen and Lazarev conducted a detailed research of the islands, and gave them names in honor of the recent battles of the Napoleonic wars. The names were Smolensk, Waterloo, Leipzig, Borodino, Berezina, and Polotsk. The smaller islands were named after the naval officers, members of the expedition. The English names which are in use now, came later, at the height of the whale hunting industry.
Today, the Bellingshausen station is one of five permanent Russian polar stations in the Antarctic. Normally, from ten to fifteen polar explorers spend their winter there, whereas from December to March the station may house up to forty people. The little red houses which belong to the station, are scattered along the Stationary (Stantsionny) creek. A Chilean station is situated nearby. On the local scale, this station is like a real town, with its own shop, a post office, a bank, and even a school. From the Chilean station the road leads to the Chinese station, called the Great Wall. The Uruguayan station Artigas is situated four kilometers away, on the opposite side, at the foothill of a glacier. South Korean and Argentinean stations operate on the opposite side of the bay. The Poles and the Brazilians work in the nearby bay. Polar explorers also come seasonally from Germany, the United States, Great Britain, Spain, Czech Republic, and many other countries. King George Island is a world without locks and borders. People often ask me, "What language do you speak there?" It's a fair question: what can people of tens of different nationalities do in order to understand each other? But such a common language does exist. We call it the Antarctic language. This is a language of friendship and mutual understanding, which realizes that all the peoples of the world share the same planet Earth, despite their different languages, races, and creeds.
The attention of the world's scientists is drawn to this humble island, lost in the Southern Ocean. The attention is due to the fact that the Antarctic Peninsula is the region, where the global climate change can be clearly seen the most. During the last fifty years of observations, the average temperature on the island has risen by three degrees (Centigrade). This is a very significant figure for the world climate. This temperature rise leads to the dramatic changes in the environment, including the melting of the glaciers, and the environmental catastrophes. The study of the processes on the Antarctic Peninsula gives us valuable information, which enables us to forecast the global climate change accurately.
This was the main reason for organizing a unique scientific event on the Bellingshausen station. In December of 2010 an international summer school on the global warming in the Polar Regions was held here. The school was organized by the Obukhov Institute of Atmospheric Physics of the Russian Academy of Sciences, and by the Russian Antarctic expedition. The project was also supported by the International Arctic Research Center of the University of Alaska (Fairbanks), and by the Association of Polar Early Career Scientists from the United States and Norway. The Russian Foundation of Basic Research and the Russian Academy of Sciences sponsored the project financially. More than twenty scientists from Russia, the United States, Germany, and Chile took part in the summer school. The school conducted field research and the round table discussions. The participants gave lectures on the various aspects of the global climate change as seen in the Antarctic, as well as on the future of the glaciers and the permafrost, and on the biology and geology of the region. The lectures were given not only by the leading scientists and specialists in the polar climate, but also by the young scientists who were at only at the start of their career. The summer school served as an important stage for the research of the Antarctic climate.
The most important thing was that the students who participated in the summer school were able to experience the wonderful world of the Antarctic. Perhaps in the future, the Antarctic will become a part of their scientific research. I saw how sad they were to leave the Antarctic, when they watched through the airplane's windows, how the glaciers disappeared in the fog, on the distant shore of the Drake Passage.
What does the Antarctic look like? It's a landmass of white silence, made of ice. The curious penguins are its ever-present noisy guards. The sea elephants and the seals hardly pay any attention to you, when you approach them. This is the world that lives exactly the same as millions of years ago, long before man first appeared on earth. It's the world that does not know borders or wars. The humans here are few and far between. But once you get to know anyone here, you stay close friends with them for life.
The fog over the King George Island appears suddenly, and out of nowhere. Just a minute ago, you could see a rare glimpse of the sun, but the next minute, the red buildings and the fascinating rocks disappear in the white fog. And then, you can hear the vicious roar of the Drake Passage, the stormiest strait in the world. Its shores are full of the giant whales' skeletons, washed by the ocean, and dried by the winds. The carcasses of the unknown ships, wrecked long time ago, litter its shores. Their fate is hidden in the thick fog of history. But the history of the Antarctic research continues, despite all the natural and political cataclysms.
By Irina Repina, PhD in Physics and Mathematics; a leading scientist at the Obukhov Institute of Atmospheric Physics of the Russian Academy of Sciences, a member of four Antarctic expeditions.
Photos by Irina Repina