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  • Writer's pictureLouise Delhaye

Observations at 65° South – A conversation with Francesca Pasotti

Through the large windows of the C-130 Hercules, all you can see is a smooth white blanket stretching to the horizon. It is not an endless blanket of ice or snow, but only the monochrome colors of a heavy sky. Ever since they left Rio Gallegos, Argentina, a few hours before, the 800 kilometers of fierce waters of the Drake Passage have only been an imaginary idea, an invisible truth, a few hundreds of meters below the clouds. But when the airplane began its descent towards the Chilean base of Presidente Eduardo Frei, on King George Island, the sky finally started to open up, the clouds broke away from the nose of the plane and finally, like a well-guarded untamed jewel appearing through the mist: Antarctica emerged. Sitting in the cockpit, she observes the stunning landscape that unfolds before her eyes with an overwhelming emotion. The dark sea is sprinkled with black rocks and white icebergs, where penguins and seals are resting. The land that stands out is wild and hostile, has no trees nor vegetation, but its raw edges are incredibly magnificent.

That is how Francesca Pasotti, a post-doctoral researcher at the university of Ghent, recalls seeing Antarctica for the first time. It was back in 2010, while she was sampling for her PhD thesis and studying the impacts of glacier retreat on shallow benthic communities. Nine years and three more Antarctic expeditions later, in 2019, Francesca traded the comfort of the C-130 for a rougher crossing of the Drake. She was part of a group of nine scientists who embarked on a 23-metre long sailboat to the Antarctic Peninsula for the sake of science. They named this daring project the Belgica121 (B121) expedition, in memory of the Belgica expedition conducted by Adrien de Gerlache in 1897. Their story is captured in Observations at 65° South, a documentary released this month on Netflix.

“ What our expedition is doing is actually tackling the fact that being in the very shallow waters and being so close to icebergs and glaciers is not something that big ships can do, like the Polarstern for instance. And being just one specific group of scientists with one common goal, although multidisciplinary, but all part of one single project, makes a big difference in terms of what you can achieve. The flexibility of the vessel itself and the fact that you are only your group and you're going for what you need, makes it really valuable and makes the costs of it totally worth it.”

Australis : The commercial vessel Australis of Benjamin Wallis is parked in front of a gentle sloped glacier in the Skontorp Bay. Although peaceful and smooth in this capture, the waters can carry icebergs against the ship at any time, and a continuous night of sleep is virtually impossible even in the calmest of days. Credits: Francesca Pasotti.

Although they used a hybrid vessel because, as Francesca reminds me, navigating only by sail so close to the coast and calving glaciers in such an unpredictable and unknown setting as Antarctica is dangerous, their expedition had less impact on the environment than modern scientific expeditions, which generally use larger icebreakers.

“I cannot deny that large vessels and icebreakers that do research have an impact on the environment, of course. They use fuel, they release CO2 in the air and grey waters in the ocean but I mean there is no such a thing as a human activity that doesn't have an impact. Large ships have a reason to be used because they can actually cover longer distances, withstand harsher weather conditions while work can still take place on board, they can host many more research groups so you can do much more and diverse work on deep and shelf waters compared to what a smaller boat can do. Some sampling cannot even happen on smaller boats because you need to have a certain stability of the ship to carry out work at specific and larger depths. So besides the impact of these cruises which is not something you can close your eyes on, both approaches are extremely important for the research we do and need.”

The impact of scientific activities is also demonstrated in the documentary when, among other evidence, the remains of an old British camp are found near the plate commemorating Adrien de Gerlache's expedition, at Metchnikoff Point. Cans, syringes, mercury thermometers and all sorts of plastic and chemical waste had been left behind when supposedly the expedition had to abandon the camp during bad weather conditions, in the 1970-80s. Although for a long time science has enjoyed a certain impunity with regard to its own environmental impact, Francesca seems rather optimistic about the future, underlining the fact that a lot of progress has been made in recent years. Many ships, she says, are now trying to diminish their impact with different waste management methods and, as in the case of the new Belgian research vessel the Belgica, new ships are now also running with hybrid electric and fuel engines.

Oracle doors : Two icebergs face each other in front of a dramatic calving glacier filled with crevasses that warn of a slow but sure fall towards the sea. Credits: Francesca Pasotti.

Ice on canvas: nearby Berthelot Island the silence was the messenger of a soon to be snow fall only announced by the monochromatic skies in front of us. These wandering icebergs laid silent across the calm waters like frozen bears dozed off in a winter sleep. Credits: Francesca Pasotti.

In such an isolated continent, where organisms have adapted very precisely to harsh living conditions, the apparent roughness and wilderness of the landscapes are only a camouflage of the vulnerability of these ecosystems. The area below 60° South latitude is protected by the Antarctic Treaty until 2048, proclaiming this continent as a land of peace and science. But in a globalized world, this no longer protects Antarctica from all threats.

“I think that the main threat to Antarctica, and to be fair to any of Earth’s ecosystems, is CO2 emissions and the greenhouse gas effect. Climate change is exacerbating any other threat and ongoing impact that there is.”

After five expeditions to the region, Francesca has already observed some changes associated with global warming and increased human activity.

“I saw less and less snow cover, especially throughout the years that I went back to King George Island, which is one of the northern islands in the western Antarctic Peninsula. And in terms of human presence, a lot of tourists all the time, which was always a bit the case to be honest, but I would say more and more tourism now, even independent tourism with small boats. That's probably also thanks to the meteorological forecasts and the satellites that are a bit everywhere now with Starlink, so that it allows people to receive information.”

In 2019, 85 cruise ships were registered on the list of vessels taking passengers to Antarctica by the IAATO, the International Association of Antarctica Tour Operators, and a total of 55,489 tourists stepped foot on the continent during the 2018-2019 season only, all types of tourism included. That was about 4,000 more than the previous season but almost 20,000 less than the following year (2019-2020)[1]. Although COVID-19 has temporarily halted this trend, Antarctic tourism is growing at an alarming rate.

But while touristic boats registered at the IAATO transport on average hundreds of passengers, the crew of the Australis, the sailing vessel used for the B121 expedition, consisted of only 12 people. A closeness that can quickly become a challenge, especially when travelling through a remote and hostile region, while doing a demanding work. When I ask her if living and working in such a restricted environment does not make it too difficult to live together, Francesca answers with her usual optimism. Contrary to what most people think, to her, Antarctica is more an opportunity to reconnect with oneself and others than a way to isolate oneself from everything.

“When you go to Antarctica, you finally are in a community in some form. I always enjoy this feeling of belonging even to complete strangers, the collaborativeness, the camaraderie. It's not just the experience with the nature, with the wildlife, it’s not just my human nature that somehow becomes louder and more connected to itself, it's also my human nature connecting to my other humans fellows in another way.”
“Well of course, she continues, when you have to share spaces for a long time without having the chance to go back home, you need to know how to manage the situations that can happen in a group. Sometimes there are group dynamics that form and they may play for you or against you, so it's good to always try to be mindful of your interactions and to make sure that you come across as clear and communicative as possible. But I think everybody has a lot of respect for each other's privacy and when somebody goes to their bed, when they want to be on their own or they need to do some work, it's quite OK, it's important to allow for some me-time, even in small environments, and to be supportive of possible moods. It’s a chance to learn some camaraderie and to learn how to connect in another way. You get the opportunity to know people very deeply very quickly so it can also be a very beautiful experience.”

For Francesca, one of the first certified scientific diver in Belgium, returning to Antarctica always feels right. Having been attracted to the cold since her childhood, diving into this pristine and alien environment was a natural decision for her.

“Antarctica is somehow a land that evokes feelings of exploration and adventure, so I guess it just reflects parts of my character. It's very full of life and at the same time, it's very extreme, it's like a mental reminder of the fragility of life itself. I find it extremely special. It’s kind of lonely but also very very loud and very very expressive. I don't know, sometimes I think I might somehow see bits of myself in this continent as well.”

As she describes the beauty of this wild world and the parallels with her own character, her voice becomes deeper and more passionate, conveying a feeling of real admiration for these hostile lands. It’s true that in a place where all the elements are made of white and black and all their possible declinations, the colors are only created by the play of light in the ice, in the sky or in the sea. Each touch of color is more deeply appreciated and further enhanced by the monotony of the world that surrounds it. It is this harsh and raw beauty, the silence and the long starry night, the raging winds and seas or the quiet turquoise waters that never cease to attract adventurous souls. A paradise on the brink of hell, which is condemned to disappear if the world continues its mad rush. But, as the documentary says, “the toughest steps are not those taken out of necessity but those we chose to take in the name of change”.

Turquoise giant : a wandering iceberg photographed while cruising passed the Lemaire Channel. This majestic piece of ice was most probably the remaining of an ice shelf break off coming from farther South. Credits: Francesca Pasotti.

With that in mind and following the success of the first campaign, members of the B121 expedition will return to Antarctica on board of the Australis during two cruises in February 2023 (TANGO I expedition) and 2024 (TANGO II expedition). As part of this TANGO project, they will investigate the effects of climate change on the Antarctic ecosystem, one of the research priorities defined by international agreements. In a few days, the 2023 team, including Francesca as dive team leader and on board scientist, will head to Ushuaia and set sails again to the Antarctic Peninsula.

“During this year’s campaign, we are actually interested in doing a lot of sea ice work although we are afraid that it hasn't been a good year for that, so we might not succeed, but this is of course beyond our control. There should be a second cruise going back to the Gerlache Straight to repeat some of the measurements in the coves we visited during the Belgica 121 expedition. This is all I can tell you for now.”

To find out more and follow their adventures in real time, visit their Facebook, Instagram and website pages and stay tuned on APECS Belgium as Francesca will send us some updates in the coming weeks. Meanwhile, if you want to immerse yourself deeper into the fabulous landscapes of the South Pole, visit Francesca Pasotti's photography website.

Cover picture is credits of Lilian Hess and Netflix. [1]

Written by Louise Delhaye


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