Finding algae under the ice

Some researchers get lucky. They don’t end up in the basement of a grey laboratory, on a shared desk. No, their work spaces look more like a holiday resort. This week: Antarctica.
By Christien Boomsma / Translation by Sarah van Steenderen Foto Povl Abrahamsen

Jacqueline Stefels regularly travels to Antarctica. The Science and Engineering polar researcher studies how melting sea ice affects the formation of dimethyl sulfide, or DMS.

For many people, the smell of this gas reminds them of the ocean. It’s an organic sulphur compound produced by algae. It facilitates cloud formation and counteracts the greenhouse effect. But as the sea ice melts, the algae fields below them are damaged.

‘Once you’ve been to Antarctica, it’s in your soul. The place is so amazingly beautiful that you can’t help but fall in love. I remember how I felt the first time I spotted an iceberg through the porthole when I arrived with the research vessel the Polarstern. It was the size of an entire building!


I was completely overwhelmed. Now I know it was just a normal, boring iceberg that wasn’t even all that pretty. By now I’ve seen so many, in so many different, bizarre shapes. Some of them are smooth from water and wind erosion, some have weird caves and jagged holes.

People always think it’s really cold work, but at sea, the cold is buffered by the temperature of the sea water. The sea water is no more than minus 2 degrees Celsius, which means it’s -10 or -20 on deck. It’s cold, but fine if you have a good coat and a woolly hat.

If you start going stir crazy you can take out your cross-country skis

Mensen denken vaak dat het heel koud is, maar op zee wordt de kou gebufferd door de temperatuur van het zeewater. Het zeewater is minimaal -2, dus dan is het aan dek ongeveer -10 of -20. Koud, maar met een dikke jas en een muts is het prima te doen.

Really hard work

Research on a ship like this is really hard work. It’s seven days a week, so after nine weeks you’re pretty much done with being packed together like sardines. I spend most of my time on the British research station Rothera.

More than a hundred people work there and they play host to me and a group of approximately ten other Dutch people. Life there is surprisingly ordinary. There’s a chef who cooks delicious meals, Wednesday and Sundays are movie nights, and everybody gets dressed nice for dinner.

Sometimes we take a small inflatable boat into the bay to take samples. It’s lovely: you can see penguins sunning themselves, the sea ice drifting in and out of the bay. And if you start going stir crazy, which happens to everyone, you can take out your cross-country skis and blow off some steam on a nearby glacier. No one can take that away from you.


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