Concordia is a French-Italian station operated by the French Polar Institute and the Programma nazionale di ricerche in Antartide.
Continuously inhabited since 2005, it is one of only three stations located in the interior of the Antarctic continent. This makes it, among other things, an important site for the seismic and geomagnetic observation networks of our planet.
Concordia is built on the Dome C site, on top of an ice cap that is 3,300 m thick and which, using ice cores, is being used to trace the terrestrial climate in past years. The EPICA (European Project for Ice Coring in Antarctica) drilling project has made it possible to recover a record of the climate over the last 800,000 years and it is expected that the next core samples will exceed one million years. In addition to its high altitude, low levels of air humidity, low light and low air pollution make it an ideal site for astronomy and studies on atmospheric physical chemistry.
The station is composed of two towers, one for ‘quiet’ activities (bedrooms, laboratories, hospital, etc.), the other for ‘noisy’ activities (kitchen, living room, fitness room, workshops, etc.) and technical buildings. During the summer campaign, some of the personnel are housed in the summer camp, a complex of buildings and tents located 500 m from the station. Various buildings housing scientific facilities are found around the station.
The station was designed based on innovative architectural and technological concepts as per the recommendations set out in the Antarctic Treaty. Grey water is recycled by a treatment unit developed in collaboration with the European Space Agency. Heating is produced by cogeneration when the power station is in operation. Organic waste is transformed into compost by a digester, other waste material is sorted and repackaged for reprocessing off the continent.
75°06’S – 123°21’E
3,233 m in altitude
1st overwinter in 2005
12 to 15 overwintering personnel
and up to 70 people in summer
-30°C on average in summer
and -63°C in winter
The project for a new research station at Dome C was initiated by the French Polar Expeditions in the 1980s. The initial study, including the required facilities, the transport system and the coastal base camp was completed in 1991. At that time, the Italian Antarctic Program (PNRA) expressed interest in developing scientific and technological research in Antarctica and in taking part in the Dome C project. The benefit of collaborating in such a project was quite clear and an agreement was signed on 9 March 1993 between the PNRA and The French Polar Institute Paul-Émile Victor, the successor of the EPF. This agreement establishes the two national operators as equal partners in the construction and operation of the Dome C station, now called ‘CONCORDIA’.
Dome C is a 3,200 m high plateau, where the ice cap reaches 4,000 metres thick; this makes it a particularly interesting place for glaciology since very deep boreholes could make it possible to trace the past 500,000 years of climate history. This spot is also ideal for studying variations in the ozone layer, as well as making astronomical and cosmological observations because the atmosphere is very pure and free of water vapour given the very low temperature there. The site should also make it possible to collaborate in the seismic and magnetic observation network in Antarctica.
In addition, the station was also meant to be used to run experiments on new technologies, especially in connection with the space agencies that had expressed their interest in the project given the similar living conditions between the station and an orbital station (isolation, confinement, extreme climate), in order to perform physiological and psychological monitoring studies there.
The installation of the station on Dome C began in the 1998-1999 season, several summer campaigns were needed to deliver the 3,000 tonnes of material and to construct the station. The first overwintering finally occurred in 2005; during this time, it was possible to develop the technical functions of the station, to commission the water treatment unit in particular, and to confirm the site’s astronomical qualities.
The station was installed at 75°06’S – 123°21’E.
It is one of three permanent stations installed inland on the continent, and not on the coast, with the American Amundsen-Scott station installed at the South Pole and the Russian Vostok station.
It is located 1,100 km away from the Dumont d’Urville station and 1,200 km from the Italian Marion Zucchelli station.
Concordia is installed on a plateau at an altitude of 3,233 metres, on ice that is 4,000 metres thick. The high altitude and the thinning of the atmospheric layer above the poles mean that the perceived altitude is close to 3,500 m due to the atmospheric pressure.
The average annual temperature in Concordia is -55°C. It varies between -30°C and -50°C in summer, and can reach -80°C in winter. The wind, even very light wind (10 knots maximum), has a strong influence on the perceived temperature.
Due to the very low temperature, the atmosphere does not contain any water vapour and therefore the air is very dry. On average, there is between 2 and 10 cm of snow per year.
On average, the air pressure is 645 hPa.
The average wind speed is 2.8 m/s, i.e. slightly above 10 km/h and can reach a maximum of 17 m/s (61.2 km/h).
There is permanent sunshine between mid-November and late January. It then decreases until it there is zero sunshine between mid-May and late July, and the sun gradually starts to reappear above the horizon for longer and longer periods of time.
The station’s time slot was chosen so that personnel are working during the hottest hours of the day; the station’s hours are set to the UTC+8 time zone. There is a seven-hour time difference between the station and France when France is on winter time, and six after having switched to daylight saving time. There is a two-hour difference with the Dumont d’Urville station, which is linked to the Australian time zone (UTC+10).
Concordia was selected by the national roadmap on research infrastructures as it is a ‘very large research infrastructure’ (TGIR). In other words, it was identified as ‘a tool or device with unique characteristics identified by the user scientific community as required for carrying out high-level research activities’.
The criteria for inclusion in the roadmap also imply the presence of identified, unified and effective governance and both strategic and scientific steering bodies, an openness to the scientific community that would like to use it, based on peer review, carrying out one’s own research or providing services to one or more user communities including actors from the economic sector. Large research infrastructures must also be able to produce multi-year budget programming as well as a consolidated budget including full costs and to make the data produced available.
The inclusion of a research infrastructure in the national roadmap represents a quality label and recognition of its value in the National Research Strategy. The goal of steering these infrastructures is to ensure that the French keep their positions within major European research projects, however without weakening support for national facilities which are still the first point of access for our researchers.
TGIRs are the result of a government strategy reflected in several acts of the Organic Law on Finance Laws (LOLF) and a budget earmarking by the Ministry of Higher Education, Research and Innovation. They are national or result from international or European partnerships, particularly through their commitment to the European Strategic Forum on Research Infrastructures (ESFRI) roadmap. They are important tools in industrial collaboration and innovation networks. TGIRs are under the scientific responsibility of the research operators.
France and Italy, through their Ministries of Research have signed a partnership agreement for the management of the Concordia station.
This agreement defines the contributions, financial or service-related, of each country with regards to the operation of the station. For example, the Italians are responsible for transporting equipment and personnel by air as well as for the telecommunications, whereas the French manage the logistics traverses and the vehicle fleet.
The overwintering team is therefore made up of French and Italian members, and sometimes other nationalities recruited by one of the two countries.
The station is made up of two towers, each with three levels that are connected to each other and to the container buildings housing the power station and the water treatment station by covered corridors on the ground floor. The towers are installed on stilts so that the site does not become snowed in.
One of the towers is devoted to ‘quiet’ activities, it houses:
– On the ground floor: the hospital, the doctor’s bedroom, an equipment storeroom and the rooms specifically dedicated to telecommunications (the mail room), the ‘telephone booth’ as well as the technical manager’s bedroom.
– On the first floor: 16 bedrooms, the bathrooms (men and women) and toilets as well as the station’s laundry room, which is also the room in which the SoUz simulator is used.
– On the second floor: the laboratories for glaciology, atmospheric physics, magnetism and seismology, human biology, the room for the radio, computer and antennas, the station leader’s office and the scientific coordinator’s office.
The second tower is devoted to ‘noisy’ activities with:
– On the ground floor: the emergency generator, the technical workshop, a laundry room and waste management spaces (with compactors, and the digester).
– On the first floor: food storage areas (cold room, dry food store and store heated to 4°C), the video room and the gymnasium.
– On the second floor: the kitchen, the dish washing area, the canteen and the living room/library/meeting room.
The two towers also have access to an emergency staircase which leads to the station’s roofs.
The station was designed to accommodate 16 people in winter and 32 people during the summer campaign. During the summer campaign, close to 40 additional people can be accommodated at the summer camp.
The Astroconcordia platform is a space located outside the station and which is specifically used for astronomy. Specifically, it consists of a wooden shelter, which houses the scientists’ workspaces, an area with the equipment needed to tinker with the telescopes, computers, a server for storing and transferring the data acquired by the telescopes.
Next to the shelter, there are two wooden arches holding up platforms upon which observation equipment is installed in order to avoid being on the ground where winds are common due to the high pressure system in Antarctica pushing the air towards the ground. There are also domes housing the telescopes and a small shelter for inspecting the installed instruments.
Near the summer camp, several areas are dedicated to glaciology.
The EPICA workshop is in the tent that was used for the maintenance of the project’s coring instruments, and which today serves as a storage, DIY, and recreation rooms for glaciologists.
The EPICA tent is the tent that houses the EPICA borehole, where temperature and sound diffusion studies are still being carried out. The tent is occasionally used for DIY operations, such as cutting casing tubes.
The ‘cold’ bunker, also called the ‘buffer’, is a building that is divided into two spaces. The first area, right at the entrance, is used to temporarily store ice cores. In the spaces further back, cores were sawn, sampled, and a first spectrometry study was carried out there.
The ‘warm’ bunker is a building where cores are cut and data are collected on the cores.
The American tower is a metal tower that is approximately fifty metres high which is equipped with scientific measuring instruments, primarily meteorological: this equipment measures the temperature and wind speed at different heights.
The seismometers at the Dome C site are currently installed at the bottom of the ‘seismo cellar’, a set of containers that have been stacked and buried under the snow. The cellar is accessed via a first hatch equipped with a ladder that leads to the data storage system. A second hatch leads to a 45-metre tunnel dug in the snow. After the tunnel, two metal ladders lead to the cellar itself, at a depth of 15 metres. The temperature is at a constant -59°C.
Snow accumulation is deforming the current cellar, therefore a new structure must be built in order to accommodate the seismology activities. During the 2018/2019 summer campaign, a new wooden shelter on stilts was built, and drilling with a Trapanelle model corer was initiated. The objective is to install the seismometer at a depth of 130 metres in order to reach the ice. The borehole is currently 130 mm in diameter but will need to be enlarged to 220 mm before the system can be installed.
The SuperDarn shelter was installed 1500 metres from the station, near the project’s antenna field. It houses the project’s data acquisition and storage systems.
The Atmos shelter is a metal shelter on stilts that is used to take atmospheric chemistry measurements. It is made up of an area that houses the air pumps, a reception area for mercury measuring devices, a laboratory section for handling materials, storage areas for the Argon bottles, and a telescope data acquisition area.
The roof of the shelter is equipped with numerous air pumps, filters, and a telescope.
The snow shelter houses the snow study projects.
The geomagnetism activities are distributed in two underground shelters, connected by a long corridor. The first houses a theodolite, which was installed in such a way that it is possible to aim, through the corridor, at a target installed in the second shelter.
The electricity needed to produce water, heat, light, and operate all of the devices, whether they are used for scientific, technical or everyday purposes, is produced from fuel imported from Hobart. This fuel is transported by L’Astrolab to the Dumont d’Urville station, and then by a traverse to Concordia. The power station is comprised of three electric generators, as well as an emergency generator which was installed further away inside the station.
Heating is produced by cogeneration: the production of electricity from fuel releases heat which then heats the water circuit circulating in the station’s radiators.
The station is fitted with two water supply systems. ‘Fresh’ water is produced by melting ice in a 7 m3 melter. 80 m3 (4 x 20 m3 containers/tanks) of this water is stored: once it has been filtered, treated via osmosis and UV rays, it is safe for human consumption and can used in cooking and as drinking water.
Grey water (showers, dishes, etc.) is recycled using a recycling system developed in partnership with the European Space Agency: this water is treated and filtered and then put back into circulation for the same uses. When the recycling plant is working correctly, this water is also drinkable at the end of the cycle, however for psychological reasons it was chosen not to completely stop producing water from the ice.
The production of water, whether fresh or recycled, is completely dependent on the production of energy from the power station and therefore, like energy, it must be saved as much as possible.
Black water (toilets, etc.) is discharged into a hole dug in the ice; in fact a study showed that this solution was less detrimental to Antarctica’s environment than bringing the volume that this water represents back to Australia, given the emissions produced by the engines used during the traverse.
Waste is sorted and treated depending on the type of waste:
During the summer campaign, there is a two-person rota for washing and tidying up for breakfast, washing up for evening and lunch meals and cleaning the floors. There is also a rotation, but only one person, for cleaning the common rooms of the summer camp. The workshop is cleaned on Saturday afternoon.
The lounge welcomes Concordia’s residents during their moments of relaxation: a bar, a soccer table, a library, and a television are at their disposal. It is also where the summer campaign participants gather for the weekly Saturday briefing.
The annual rhythm of the season’s operation is directly correlated with the possibility of transporting equipment and personnel. A year is divided into two periods:
During the summer campaign
The Concordia station population can be divided in two different ways: by distinguishing between the French and Italian teams, and by distinguishing the members of scientific projects from the station’s maintenance teams.
The latter are partly composed of permanent personnel from The Polar Institute and PNRA, and partly of personnel recruited only for the campaign, but some of whom come back to the campaign year after year. Examples include a site manager (leader station), a scientific coordinator, a technician responsible for the installation, a plumber, an electrical engineer, and B3D technicians, a secretary, radio managers, a cook, etc., who work in pairs with the overwintering personnel.
Therefore, some of the overwintering personnel only take full responsibility once the summer campaign personnel have left.
During the overwintering campaign
In winter, the team is reduced to a skeleton crew. The mission of the technical team (technical manager, electrical engineer, plumber-heating engineer, mechanic) is to keep the station running, whereas the scientific team (computer scientist, chemist, ESA doctor, astrophysicist, glaciologist, atmospheric physicist) is responsible for monitoring the scientific projects. The cook-steward and the doctor feed and care for everyone.
A ‘traverse’ is a convoy which, on four occasions during the austral summer, travels the distance between the Robert Guillard installations on the coast of Adélie Land and the Concordia station to supply Concordia with food, fuel and equipment.
A traverse is made up of three series of tractors, Caterpillar’s MT 865 challengers, which have been ‘winterized’, i.e. specially modified so as to be able to operate at very low temperatures, preceded by snow groomers and pulling caravans, fuel tanks, and containers of food and equipment placed on sleds.
The traverse team is comprised of 9 to 10 people, including a doctor. The caravans are specially designed to accommodate the team and to keep them comfortable and safe during these crossings which, round-trip, last between 20 and 25 days.
The traverse is loaded at Robert Guillard, at the Cap Prud’homme site on the Antarctic continent, where the cargo is pre-routed from the Dumont d’Urville station 5 km away and L’Astrolab. It then covers the 1,100 km (and 3,300 metres of elevation) separating the two stations in roughly ten days at a rhythm between 60 to 120 km per day on average. A traverse can carry between 150 to 200 tonnes of cargo.
With regards to telecommunications, the convoy is equipped with an Iridium station (e-mail and telephone), Inmarsat-C and -M terminals and a traditional HF radio transmitter. Three convoys of this type transport 400 to 500 tonnes of equipment and supplies during each summer campaign. On their way back, they take waste from the Concordia station with them.
It is not easy to find the ‘track’ between two crossings of the convoy or two austral summers. This is only possible by creating a slight embankment using the blade of the levelling machines. The vehicles, especially the one at the head of the convoy, are equipped with electronic navigation systems that rely on the use of GPS. The lead vehicle is fitted with powerful headlamps that allow the ground to be seen even in reduced visibility conditions (whiteout).
For the convoy to run smoothly, the distribution of the loads must be adapted to the types of sleds used and the condition of the ‘track’ in order to conserve equipment, optimize fuel consumption and reduce journey times.
On the way back to Robert Guillard, the traverse is loaded with waste from the Concordia station, and along the way, it collects the empty fuel tanks abandoned during the outward journey.
Station personnel, overwintering and summer campaign personnel, scientists, technical staff and logistics specialists arrive at Concordia by plane. Some personnel arrive from Dumont d’Urville, after crossing the Southern Ocean aboard L’Astrolabe from Hobart in Tasmania.
The rest of the personnel takes a plane in Christchurch, New Zealand or Hobart via the American MacMurdo and Italian Mario Zucchelli stations, sometimes via the Australian Casey station.
Flights are operated by two types of plane: Canadian Twin Otters or Baslers, which can also be used for cargo flights.
Glaciology and paleoclimatology: The European EPICA ice drilling programme (involving 10 countries) has focused on the 3,200 m of accumulated ice on Dome C and has produced a reconstruction of the climate history over the last 800,000 years. This reconstruction plays a major role in the IPCC’s ongoing work on climate changes at the scale of our planet. The numerous sub-glacial lakes in the area are also an interesting research direction. These small sub-glacial lakes could be used to help develop new technologies that will allow us to make advances in the study of these extreme environments. Last, studies are being carried out to locate a favourable site for glacial drilling, near the station, where it will be possible to reconstruct the climate over more than a million and a half years.
Atmospheric Chemistry and Physics: Similarly, the extreme isolation of the site and its location under the polar vortex makes it a unique site for studying the atmosphere, the changes in the ozone layer and the general circulation of pollutants and aerosols.
Astronomy: Site quality studies carried out at Concordia show that the location of Dome C is particularly well placed for astronomical observations given its unique geographical position (close to the pole and at a high altitude) and its extremely dry, cold and very stable atmosphere with low levels of oxygen in the air. It appears to be the most suitable land-based site for operating certain types of telescope, much better than existing sites (e.g. Chile) and, above all, it is much less expensive than space telescopes.
Earth Observatory: Given that there are almost no stations located in the centre of the Antarctic continent, Concordia station is an important node in the Earth Observatory Grid, which has particularly loose coverage in this part of the world, whether in the field of meteorology (managed by the Italians), seismology, terrestrial magnetism, atmospheric chemistry etc.
Engineering and medicine: A very isolated site with harsh climate conditions, Dome C is a prime location for assessing techniques and procedures to be used in future work on other planets and for testing how small groups of individuals continuously adapt to conditions that are similar to those encountered in spacecraft or orbital stations.
Technologies: Due to the environmental constraints, innovative technologies and processes must be developed for the station’s equipment and for the ground convoys, in order to improve their efficiency and performance.