Saturday, December 3, 2016

Antarctic journey through generations

One of my inspirations for writing a blog about my upcoming adventures comes from my grandfather, Vitaly Borisovich Tsukernik.

Vitaly Tsukernik, born in 1928, was a geophysicist. As such he wintered-over in Antarctica during 1959-1961 as a participant of the fifth Soviet Antarctic Expedition (SAE). He worked as a seismologist in the field, measuring the thickness of Antarctic ice sheet. To give you a little scientific and political context - the world was in the midst of the Cold War, but the scientists at the time managed to achieve one of biggest peace agreements to date. The continent of Antarctica was to be preserved for scientific exploration, rather than nuclear testing. Antarctic treaty was not officially signed yet, but Antarctic exploration began full throttle just as the US and Soviet scientists agreed to preserve the continent in the mid-1950s. The first SAE occurred in 1955-57, my grandfather participated in the fifth expedition.

It was the historic time indeed. The fifth SAE did a traverse from coastal station Mirniy to the interior station Vostok. Back then the existence of under-ice lake at the Vostok station was merely a scientific proposal, made only a few months before my grandfather's traverse. The Vostok station was placed in that particular location by mere luck, the Soviet scientists wanted a station in the continental interior at a "meaningful" location. Since the South Pole station was already claimed by the Americans, the Russians decided to claim the South geomagnetic pole. Nothing wrong with a friendly scientific rivalry on who gets the "coolest" station I guess. While making initial seismic measurements near the Vostok station, the fourth SAE (the one before my grandfather's) started to suspect the existence of liquid water under the massive ice sheet. The measurements my grandfather and his colleagues made developed the theory further, it took years to finally confirm the presence of a lake under the ice.

Vitaly Tsukernik during the fifth Soviet Antarctic Expedition.

Unfortunately, I never met my grandfather. He died young, in 1978 before I was born. Growing up I did not know anything about the historical importance of his scientific expedition. I only knew that way back when my dad was a little boy his dad went to Antarctica for a really long time.

Fast forward forty years. In the late 1990s an international team of Russian-American-French scientists finished drilling the Vostok ice core - the deepest ice core at the time, reaching the depth of 3,623 meters. To this date this core remains the longest paleo record of Earth's atmosphere - air bubbles trapped in between the ice crystals in the ice sheet provide evidence of paleo (ancient) atmospheric composition. 

Vostok ice core spanning over 400,000 years.

Fast forward to present day. Russian scientists are still figuring out a way to drill and to collect water samples from the mysterious under-ice lake Vostok. Over the last several years, there were several attempts to collect uncontaminated water/frozen water samples, but no data have been made public yet. Maybe more information will come to light during the life of this blog.

Coming back to my grandfather Vitaly, there are a few things I want to mention. Although I never met him, he left behind his letters to the family and his Antarctic diaries. His trip started out very similarly to the ACE expedition - an AARI-owned Russian research vessel left the port of St Petersburg, stopped in Kiel, Germany to load scientific cargo and then sailed to Cape Town, South Africa. As I read my grandfather's journal I am amazed at how little has changed in the scale and near-disaster-attitude of planning a massive Antarctic expedition. At the same time the world is so different. His colleagues and he were not allowed to go on land during the stop in Kiel, Germany. I guess the Soviet party leaders were afraid that scientists might flee. My grandfather's short port stop in South Africa was the only foreign country he ever got to visit. And then there was the vast ice sheet of Antarctica. 

One more amazing thing happened to my grandfather in Antarctica. As part of the scientific and cultural exchange between the USSR and the US, an American geophysicist joined the fifth SAE. This exchange program started as a political gesture to overcome the Cold War appearances. Although it never expanded into the free exchange of scientific knowledge and data (and Soviet science suffered from isolation for years to come), meeting a real American was a very important event in my grandfather's life.

His name was Gilbert Dewart. He knew a little Russian, my grandfather's English was rudimentary, but they became friends and kept in touch after the expedition as much as they could in their reality. It was in Antarctica that my grandfather realized the importance of learning English and made sure that his two sons started early. Arguably, this decision led to my dad meeting my mom and our family moving to the United States many years later.

As I start my journey south, I will try to publish/comment on parts of my grandfather's diary entries. Vitaly was most actively journaling during the long marine stretch, which will be somewhat similar to Leg 1 of the ACE expedition. My grandfather's journal is in Russian, so I might post something in Russian to this blog as well. This is a work in progress, I am not sure how this will play out yet. Pease comment on this post (or email me) if you think it is a worthy idea.

Oh, and one more thing I absolutely need to mention - Gilbert Dewart wrote a book about his experience being an American geophysicist wintering with the Russians in Antarctica. This book is available on Amazon:
Read it. It is awesome.


  1. Amazing! Definitely publish your grandfathers journals!!

  2. Well how cool is that?! I only wonder when and how you did come to learn more fully about your grandfather.

    1. I read his letters and journals from the field.

  3. Please, feel free to continue writing, sharing and comparing your grandfather's experience with yours.
    I would love to read more!

  4. Dear Masha,
    I met your parents while skying the Italian Alps, they stopped me because they saw antarctic patches on my jacket and asked infos.
    Indeed, I'm a biologist working with Antarctic fish and I participated in 5 expeditions in the Ross sea Italian Mario Zucchelli station (the first in 1998), and a winter-time scientific cruise with N. Palmer vessel in the sub-antarctic islands and pack ice.
    I know you are a climatologist and I guess you have a lot of work to do due to the dramatic changes in the southern ocean.
    I hope you had a smooth navigation and not too much high seas. I'm happy in exchanging with you about Antarctica.
    Good Luck,
    Giuseppe Scapigliati