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Meteorologist gets cold awakening to Antarctic beauty

By LI MENGHAN | China Daily | Updated: 2024-04-11 10:11

"I felt as if I had landed on an alien planet," said 24-year-old Fan Rongfeng, the only meteorologist in the seventh China-Chile joint Antarctic expedition team.

"The air was unbelievably clean and fresh, the sea ice was so immaculate that a single grain of sand could hardly be found, and clusters of penguins gracefully waddled about."

But he found that the desolate and enigmatic continent was not that frigid, with red and yellow vegetation, such as moss and algae, a stark contrast to the barren landscape he had imagined.

Fan embarked on the mission early this year to advance the study of polar climate change amid dramatic global warming.

His primary objective was to set up two autonomous meteorological stations tailored for extreme low temperatures on the Antarctic Peninsula. This involved selecting sites, installing equipment and conducting trial operations.

The Antarctic Peninsula, the continent's largest peninsula, which extends the furthest north into the ocean, is among the areas most severely affected by global warming.

In 2020, Argentina registered a staggeringly high temperature of 18.3 C at the Esperanza station on the peninsula, establishing a new high for the continent.

The autonomous meteorological stations developed by the Chinese Academy of Meteorological Sciences will enable long-term observation in extremely low temperatures, providing more precise real-time data for studying polar climate change.

As a graduate student at the academy, Fan said he undertook the mission with "tension and expectation" as his undergraduate studies in atmospheric sciences leaned more toward theory than practical application.

"Ever since I learned about the project about six months earlier, I began my preparations, delving into literature and seeking guidance from seniors, despite uncertainty about eligibility," he said, adding that the academy attached great importance to the mission and organized specialized training.

He said the training was very comprehensive, covering everything from the construction process for a meteorological station, such as site selection, installation and the use of tools, to fieldwork precautions in Antarctica, such as avoiding nighttime operations and leaving no litter behind.

"A prime location for a meteorological station should be a flat, open area distant from the coast, necessitating the transport of heavy components, several weighing tens of kilograms, to the specified site under sea conditions with less wind and waves," Fan said.

When choosing the sites, Fan also considered the need for them to be a considerable distance from China's Great Wall Station in Antarctica to make the data more representative. In addition, they needed to be in parts of the peninsula that were warming.

At D'Urville Island, one of the designated sites, the weather forecast indicated a window of just two hours for work that had been expected to take four.

Fan had made detailed plans on the research vessel, specifying the components each team member needed to transport and the support required during installation. He rehearsed the assembly process multiple times, and simulated potential emergency situations and appropriate responses.

"Thanks to my fellow team members, we were able to complete the work in just one and a half hours," he said.

The wind and waves started to pick up as they made their way back to the research vessel, giving him a greater appreciation of the significance of precise weather forecasts for scientific expeditions.

At the other installation site, James Ross Island, Fan experienced a thrilling Antarctic night.

When they arrived, the sky was already getting a little dark, so they planned to first transport the components to the island and assemble them the next day. However, the receding tide left their kayaks stranded on the way back. All the team members had to stand in the icy water and push the kayaks back into the sea.

"It was at that moment that I understood the gravity of freezing to death," Fan said. But, undeterred, they successfully set up the meteorological station.

"Given the extreme and unpredictable nature of polar regions, Antarctic expeditions are highly adventurous," he said.

"Yet the sense of accomplishment and the power of unity surpassed the feeling of fear."

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