pole people
Closer to the stars
In January 2021, the ship Akademik Fedorov will go to the 66th Russian Antarctic Expedition. We met with Sergei Korobov, the head of the Bellingshausen station, who already participated in five expeditions.
Interviewed by Daria Plaksunova, Tanya Medvedeva

Text: Alexandra Sinitsyna
Translation prepared by Deniza Alieva

Interview prepared with the support of the Arctic and Antarctic Research Institute

From a conversation with Sergei Korobov, we learn why the expedition lasts more than a year, what you can learn from the ice test, how to order pizza in Antarctica ... We asked a lot of questions!

Sergei Korobov
the head of the polar stations, who already participated in five expeditions

— Sergey, New Year is coming soon. Have you celebrated New Year in Antarctica? Or birthday?

— Of course: I have had many expeditions. And, of course, I celebrated the New Year at the polar station. But it is different there! This is the Southern Hemisphere, so everything is opposite here. In summer it’s the coldest, and New Year is a polar day, very hot and warm.

We all celebrate the holiday at twelve o'clock in Moscow, we watch the president's congratulations... You celebrate, you drink champagne, you watch the president's congratulations, then you go out into the street - and there the sun is shining. Twelve o'clock at night. So in this regard, the New Year is special there.

Of course, I also celebrated my birthday - after all, the winterers are on watch for exactly one year. You arrive, change the previous shift and you are at the station for a year.

Higher, higher!
At Progress station
Photo from the collection of S.Yu.Korobov
When you sit in the Vostok, you see the stars above your head and understand that you are almost four and a half kilometers closer to these stars.
— So, you will now leave in January - and will you be there until next January?

— No. Exactly a year is in Antarctica at the station, and the rest is all road, that is, it cannot be less than a year and a half. The year will be if you go by plane. But since we go by ship, by icebreakers, we spend a lot of time on road. And now, due to the situation with the Covid in the world, air traffic has been disrupted, there is no guarantee that this spring people will be able to fly away. Therefore, everything is done by ships. So it turns out on average a year and a half. A year there and half a year on the road.

— I thought that you rounded up the "year", but it turns out - not just a year, but also a road! It is so long!

— There are also seasonal operations. There is a wintering - this is when the polar night, cold, polar explorers spend a year at the station. There is a "season" - this is when there is a polar summer in Antarctica, a polar day, the sun shines the whole day long. Many scientists and specialists come, there is the most activity, you can work at any time. Then the conditions are not bad at the coldest station, because it is warm.
On July 21, 1983, at Vostok station, the absolute minimum of the surface air temperature on our planet was recorded -89.2 ° C. Since then, this record has not been "broken".
Photo from the collection of S.Yu.Korobov
— And how much heat is it?

— Antarctica is a huge continent, so each station is different. We now have five wintering stations, four of them are on the coast, one is continental - Vostok. In the Vostok I was the head, it’s where in 1983 a temperature record of -89.2° C was recorded. For our winter, the record was -82.4° C, if I am not mistaken. And there is, for example, Bellingshausen station, where I am going to now, last year I spent the winter there. There, in general, the ocean very rarely freezes, the station is coastal, warm from the ocean. The water in the ocean can't be much lower than zero, right? It gives warmth to the shore, and the temperature is around zero.

— Resort.

— Well, yes, compared to the Vostok. Polar explorers say that Bellingshausen is a resort.

— What other stations have you been to?

— On Progress, on Novolazarevskaya as well. Where the airfield is. My first wintering was just there.
Compared to the cold Vostok, Bellingshausen station is a resort
Photo from the collection of S.Yu.Korobov
— What expedition has been this one in your personal career? Are you worried before the trip or are you already used to it?

— Now I will have my sixth expedition. Of course I'm worried. I am worried about the personnel, I recruit members of the expedition, I check everyone. We are purchasing many products now, in November. How you carry out the expedition depends on what products you buy, what equipment, spare parts and consumables you take. Polar explorers joke that the expedition can be ruined by a bad head and a bad cook.

With this Covid now such a nightmare is happening... My task is for everyone to board the ship in full force and sail away normally. Therefore, if there are losses in personnel, I will not be able to make up for them - a lot of documents have to be collected: vaccinations against yellow fever, against diphtheria, many maritime documents. If a person suddenly falls ill with Covid before the expedition, I cannot replace him. Therefore, the excitement is strong. Yes, before each expedition you worry!
Bellingshausen station view
Station Progress
An-2 aircraft is loaded onto the scientific expedition vessel "Akademik Tryoshnikov"
Photo from the collection of S.Yu.Korobov
— While we're talking about cooks, where can we get cooks to work in Antarctica? Should it be an ordinary person? Unusual? Which one?

— It's simple. The expedition requires all ordinary professions: cook, doctor; at the diesel power station work diesel operators, mechanics, drivers.

The most scarce professions are just a cook and a doctor. Doctors are in short supply because there should be two of them at the station, such a mini-surgical team: a surgeon and an anesthesiologist.

Cooks are in short supply because there are few good cooks. And so you graduate from college, get the profession of a cook, then you just have to go through a medical commission - and welcome to the expedition. There is nothing complicated about it.

But in order to be invited a second time, you need to win a reputation.
You can look at the polar lights endlessly...
Photo from the collection of S.Yu.Korobov

And my dad is a geologist - I saw what field life is. Maybe my father's example was close to me, and when the opportunity arose to go to Antarctica, I did not hesitate too much.
— And without which three things would you never go to the Pole?

— I am a system administrator by education, so I won't go anywhere without a laptop. A laptop is needed for work and leisure: reading books, watching movies, communicating with wife. I won't go without an audiobook. Before each expedition, I collect gigabytes, hundreds of gigabytes of audiobooks.

— There is no Internet there, right?

— No, now there is Internet everywhere.

— Limitless?

— At some stations already limitless, but at any station for mail, for voice messages it is quite enough. Video conferencing cannot be organized at every station, but voice messages, sending mail, photographs, surfing the Internet are possible.
Flying over Progress station. Larsemann Hills
Photo from the collection of S.Yu.Korobov
— Will you take any special food?

— You think about food at the very last moment, because it's okay at the station - lately, at least. In my first expedition in 2002... We dreamed there: when we get home, we will buy ourselves a whole pot of sausages, cook... We ran out of meat a month before the end of the shift, we had to take it from our Indian neighbors: mutual assistance is good, everybody helps each other. And now everything is fine with the supply.

— You can't order pizza, of course.

— No, why. Here in Vostok there was a chef who cooked pizza very well. I even took the recipe for the dough from him. The main thing is to make the dough.
By the way, about cooking ... Vostok is a specific station. The pressure there is very low, like in the mountains. In Vostok, an altimeter - a climbing device - shows that the altitude is 4500 meters. We also have everything that climbers have in the mountains: lack of oxygen, water boils at 80° C. It is very difficult to cook potatoes, because the water boils already at +80, and the potatoes should be cooked at +100. Also, due to the low pressure, the dough does not rise. If you bake a cake or bread according to a recipe, as you usually do at home, you will have an unbaked piece of sticky dough.
Bellingshausen station is located on the island of Waterloo, or King George
Photo from the collection of S.Yu.Korobov
— How do you become polar explorers? Where do you study? As a child, did you dream of becoming a polar explorer?

— I never dreamed of becoming a polar explorer. I have always had a craving for geography, I loved it very much, and my grades in this subject were high. And my dad is a geologist - I saw what field life is. In the summer he did not come, he returned in the winter. Expeditions, however, were done across Russia: in Soviet times, he traveled to the north, to the taiga. Maybe my father's example was close to me, and when the opportunity arose to go to Antarctica, I did not hesitate too much.
Icebergs near Progress station
Skua at the airfield of Progress station
Photo from the collection of S.Yu.Korobov
— How did this opportunity arise? What happened? Where did you work before?
I am a computer scientist, I worked in companies as a system administrator, I set local networks. I was offered to work at research stations in Antarctica. There is a computer park, there is a network. On my first expeditions, I made a local network between these computers, WiFi was not yet there, I installed it. Six years ago was the first time I went as a station head, and in my last two expeditions - as a station head as well.
Vostok station
Photo from the collection of S.Yu.Korobov
— You said that your father is a geologist. Does it look like a polar explorer profession?

Of course. It seems that you are tearing yourself away from home: this is not work in the city, where you sit in the office, you are always in nature, plowing the vastness of the oceans, and my father plowed the vast taiga of our vast homeland.

— Can you compare a polar explorer with an astronaut?

Yes, they are often compared to astronauts. Valery Vladimirovich Lukin, who for many years headed the RAE (Russian Antarctic Expedition), even said that there is a difference between us and astronauts: if people were brought to Vostok station for the season, then when it is polar night, people cannot be taken from there.

If there is some kind of force majeure at the space station and a person needs an urgent operation, otherwise he will die, then, I think, they can organize it, urgently take him out of the space station and operate on Earth. And in Vostok it is impossible. It is simply impossible to get there during the polar night: no aviation, nothing. And almost four and a half kilometers in height. When you sit in Vostok, you see the stars above your head and understand that you are almost four and a half kilometers closer to these stars.

— You probably need to be very healthy and strong in spirit?

— Yes, you need to be psychologically stress-resistant, non-conflict, calm. You need to be able to deal with separation from loved ones and not be nervous, concentrate on work.
Ice Giants at Progress Station
Photo from the collection of S.Yu.Korobov
— You are going to Antarctica for the sixth time, despite all the difficulties. What drives you? What's so attractive?

— It's like in any profession. I heard that according to statistics, out of ten people, only four are satisfied with their work, and the other six work because they need money. Of course, I am happy that I love my profession and at the same time it helps me to earn money.

It is the combination of everything. Firstly, I earn money, I feed my family. Secondly - beauties, in this nature there is some kind of ice magic. In addition - travel. This is a whole adventure on every expedition. Let's say we leave St. Petersburg, overcome all of Europe, cross the Baltic Sea through the North Sea, go under huge Danish bridges. Then we pass through the English Channel, go along Africa, cross the equator, the tropics. Usually we have a stop in Europe in Germany, and just before Antarctica itself - in Cape Town, South Africa. If I was not a polar explorer, when would I take a walk in Cape Town? The city is very beautiful, the Table Mountain is beautiful. We sometimes return back from Antarctica through South America, visit both Montevideo and Rio de Janeiro. I have international documents of a seaman, I can stay in any port area without any visa. So it is the combination of everything: beautiful nature, salary, romance of travel.

Antarctica has a completely different way of life. Those who work in the office sometimes complain: there are no real friends, they only measure themselves with money, it is important for everyone what car you drive... In Antarctica, nobody cares about this - what car did you drive, do you have a yacht, how much money do you have. If you are a professional, if you are a man, if you keep your word, do your job, you are respected in this team. Everything else is not listed there. These are different worlds.

When you get used to this life from expedition to expedition, it is difficult to rebuild in “our” world.
Made by nature: ice "sculpture" at Progress station
Photo from the collection of S.Yu.Korobov
If you meet a person on Mars, it will not matter to you what nationality he is - you will be just happy that this is a person. It's the same in Antarctica.
— And if I want to become a polar explorer-tourist, where can I get a tour?

— Now, taking into account the Covid, it's hard. In general, there are two ways for tourists. The easiest one is through South America: Argentina and Chile, their extreme cities are closer to Antarctica, and these are just "tourist mecca". In Chile, this is the city of Punta Arenas, in Argentina - the city of Ushuaia. The cities are tailored for the tourism business in Antarctica: there are airports, huge tourist liners go there, and huge international travel companies are located there. Before the Covid, the flow of tourists there was huge.

— That is, I’m walking around the city, and I can hear: “Would you like to buy a ticket to Antarctica?”

— Indeed. If you go by ship, then only five days until Antarctica itself. There they do not show the harsh Antarctica, like Vostok, but the so-called Antarctic Peninsula next to the Drake Passage, that's where Bellingshausen station is. There is a very rich variety of species of penguins, birds, fur seals, seals, elephants, leopard seals, killer whales. And the weather is not severe, there are no big minuses. Tourists are carried on this liner, sometimes they are dropped off on the islands, they are allowed to be photographed against the background of penguins. This is the kind of tourism business there.

And the second option is from Cape Town, where you can only go by plane. We have an airfield at Novolazarevskaya station, you can contact a travel company that operates flights from Cape Town to Novolazarevskaya airfield. If you want extreme hikes - to reach the South Pole, for example - fly through Cape Town. I remember that during my expedition, Prince Harry flew in, and many VIPs who wanted to get to the South Pole, put a tick.

— Can I be a volunteer, for example?

— No, the fact is that in the Russian Antarctic Expedition there is a division for the wintering and the seasonal, and in the wintering it’s the male team. With those who stay for a year, women are not taken. But seasonal expeditions... In the Vostok, the "season" is only a month and a half, at Bellingshausen, the "season" can be extended up to six months. Female scientists go there: biologists, geographers.

— Do you have to be a scientist?

— All our stations are research stations. There is an Antarctic Treaty that bans industrial activity, military camps, weapon testing, and mining. Only scientific activity is possible, therefore the stations are all scientific and research, and logistics, cooks and doctors provide support to science.

— Can I become a cook and come?

— Theoretically it is possible. But to a man. And for woman - only if she studies penguins, or she is a hydrologist, or a climatologist.
Sunny day at Progress station
Photo from the collection of S.Yu.Korobov
Locals at Bellingshausen station
Photo from the collection of S.Yu.Korobov
You have already talked about what it means to be a station head. What are his main responsibilities?

— It is very important to maintain the correct climate and working atmosphere at the station. You need people to work. And at the same time, do not overload them, organize leisure, holidays. We have no days off there as such. A cook, for example, cannot say: "I have Saturday, Sunday, I will not feed you." He works every day, he needs to somehow throw off the psychological stress.

We organize Russian bath once a week, we have our own polar holidays. Like any Russian person, we celebrate the New Year, May 9th, we celebrate birthdays together. And there are specific polar holidays - for example, the middle of wintering on June 22. This is such a waterline - at the South Pole it is the darkest day, polar nights. And after June 22, the sun begins to increase, the polar night - to shrink, the polar day - to grow. This is such a fairway. Sometimes even the president congratulates us on the holiday of the middle of wintering.

Then - sports. When there are neighbors, I, as the station leader, organize competitions - tennis, volleyball, badminton, billiards. There are international competitions - other countries take part. Standing up for the honor of the country is a pleasure.

Sergey Korobov with colleagues from Italy and France
Photo from the collection of S.Yu.Korobov
So residents of different stations can visit each other? How do they get there?

— It depends on the location of the station. Vostok station is completely far away. During the entire winter, the French flew to us once together with the Italians. These were scientists, they needed ice cores (cylindrical ice samples).

And there are stations like Bellingshausen. There, within a radius of one hundred kilometers, there are about twenty foreign stations in the season. There are closest neighbors - we have Chileans, Uruguayans, Chinese and Koreans. You can visit them often, and they invite you to visit. I was at Progress station, there are two closest neighbors - the Chinese and the Indians, and a little further away, about a hundred kilometers in a straight line - the Australians, but they can only be reached by plane.

International communication is always going on. There, the boundaries between nationalities are being erased. If there are any problems, then they disappear there - there we are just polar explorers, all people. Difficult conditions bring people closer together. If you meet a person on Mars, it will not matter to you what nationality he is - you will be just happy that this is a person. It's the same in Antarctica. In this for me there is even some kind of prototype of the future of our planet: the boundaries are erased, we are all human, we have only common tasks and mutual assistance.

People there are always responsive. I liked Bellingshausen precisely because of the great opportunity for international communication.
Station Progress
Photo by Andrey Mirakin
Is it scary? Or do you just work without thinking that something might happen?

— There are terrible moments. But here safety and compliance with all the rules are very important. If you leave the territory of the station, you must warn. Firstly, ask permission, and secondly - be sure to be with a walkie-talkie. Time of arrival and time of departure are recorded. If work is carried out on the water, a life jacket is mandatory. At radio stations, when working with any complex equipment, safety is strictly observed. People who spend the winter there working understand that this is not something fictitious, it is the protection of their lives, that all safety rules were written in blood and must be followed.

That is, if you say “put on a mask”, everyone puts on without talking and does not laugh at each other, as we do now with Covid?

— Of course not. And what to laugh if in Vostok if you breathed in without a special mask of simple air - you have a burn of your lungs. I already know what it is like to wear a mask all the time.
Station Progress
Photo from the collection of S.Yu.Korobov
Wintering is when you arrive and understand that you will see your relatives only in a year and a half.
Let's go back to wintering again. How is wintering in Antarctica different from a seasonal expedition?

— The most negative moment is the separation from the family. You don't see your loved ones for a whole year. Thank God, you can communicate by Internet, send messages and photos via WhatsApp. Everyone experiences separation from loved ones in different ways. A closed team, the same people, no relatives nearby. It is difficult, and this is how wintering differs from the "season". About the "season" you understand that you came for a month, for two, you worked, you left. And wintering is when you come and understand that you will see your relatives only in a year and a half. There are people for whom this is unacceptable, and there are those who get along well with it.
Elephant seals (foreground) and fur seals (background).
Bellingshausen station
Climbed up! Penguin at Bellingshausen Station
Photo from the collection of S.Yu.Korobov
What saves you from the cold? Any special clothes?

— Now we produce quite good climatic clothes. Of course, there are specific clothes. Vostok, for example, is such a station - everyone there wears felt boots, because shoes are not produced for minus eighty degrees. Whatever shoes famous brands make, they are simply not designed for minus eighty degrees, they will crack and fall apart. But our Russian felt boots help out. Overalls, hats, jackets are quite good. Plus thermal underwear. There is no problem with that.
Hello Antarctica!
Vostok station airfield
Skua over the airfield of Progress station
Airplane Basler
Airfield of Progress station
Photo from the collection of S.Yu.Korobov
And what about the equipment?

— There are a lot of equipment. There is a lot of construction work being done. If we take Bellingshausen station, then we have there a front loader, a bulldozer, and wheeled vehicles. There is a "Ural" truck, there is a "UAZ", there are several truck jeeps. From tracked vehicles - two snowmobiles, PistenBully - a snowcat, a technique that cleans snow.

Is this equipment specially prepared for the Antarctic conditions?

— Of course, this is an equipment that can work under these conditions. We in the USSR produced specialized equipment, now they buy more foreign one. But the Russian one is also quite good. Ishimbay produces tractors specifically for the conditions of the North. We are now mastering our North, we need a lot of different techniques.
Helicopter Ka-32 at the airfield of Progress station
At the airfield of Progress station
Photo from the collection of S.Yu.Korobov
And what are the goals of the expedition you are going on now? Scientific? Construction?

— If we talk about construction, then in the last expedition at Bellingshausen there was a special extended construction team, and we built special antennas for Roscosmos, for GLONASS, installed large-sized beams, correcting satellite stations with rather complicated equipment. It was necessary to ensure the autonomy of the operation of all receiving antennas, and they needed diesel stations, the foundation had to be built. In the conditions of Antarctica, the foundation is difficult to make, there is no normal land, this is not an easy task. Construction work there was quite voluminous.

If we talk about scientific work, then, as the head of Vostok station, I had a thick folder - 19 scientific programs were carried out in a year - in magnetology, and in ozonometry, and climatic, and drilling, and glaciological work (scientific study of ice) related to Lake Vostok.

I even had one scientific program related to space, with the prefix "astra" ("star"). The conditions at Vostok station are close to those of Mars: the average temperature on Mars is equal to the average temperature in Vostok, there is no atmosphere on Mars as such. Humidity is very low there, as in the Vostok. It was a whole scientific program - they brought special bacteria there, studied how they would behave under these conditions. There are many interesting things in scientific programs.

Kindergarten for a walk. Emperor penguins
Photos presented to Segey Korobov by Canadian pilots
Is the expedition program designed to be related to previous and future explorations? For example, track climate change over many years?

— There are programs that have been running for ten, twenty and thirty years. In climate research, statistics are needed; they need to be collected over the years. It's the same with the work of glaciologists, with ice movements: in one year you can make measurements, but scientists are more interested in dynamics.
Everyone is now arguing about the climate: a cold snap is coming or a warming is awaiting us. All this is well explained by the research in Antarctica, because the rate of melting or accumulation of ice, like a litmus test, shows what is happening to the climate on the planet. In Vostok, we conducted ozonometric observations; this statistics has been conducted for more than forty years. Study the size of ozone holes - how they grow and shrink seasonally.

Tell us what we have there with the ice? Is everything alright or should we be afraid of global warming?

— The average temperature in Antarctica is growing. Somewhere strong melting is observed, large ice masses break off, somewhere on the contrary - ice is accumulating. The continent is large, it is impossible to say for sure. If we take the last sixty years, it is more likely that there is a slow ice melting.
At Progress station
Photo from the collection of S.Yu.Korobov
What can be determined by the ice sample?

— The fact is that ice formation in Antarctica proceeds in a certain way. In order to get ice from the snow in our usual winter conditions, it is necessary to melt it with water. And there, as such, there is no precipitation, no rain, only snow falls. In Vostok, the snow is special. It looks more like desert sand: you take it with your palm, and it crumbles. It is hard to fall into it, because it is like dunes.

Snow grains accumulate, accumulate, and then ice formation goes like this: the layer has accumulated - and the snow is compressed under pressure. The more snow above this layer, the higher the pressure, and ice formation there is special due not to freezing and melting, but to pressure.

When the core - a piece of ice - is removed from the drilling rig, then on its cut, each layer speaks of a certain composition of the atmosphere that was on the planet at the time of its formation. At Vostok station, at a depth of 3 kilometers, the ice may be over 140,000 years old. You take this core, saw it and understand: such and such a percentage of sulfur means that there were volcanic eruptions on Earth that year. An increase in nitrogen, a decrease in oxygen, carbon dioxide... Based on these data, a climatic curve is drawn, and scientists understand what was the temperature, how long the summer period, solar activity, whether there was volcanic activity, was it an ice age or warm times when dinosaurs lived. Everyone understands this from the cuts.

— Can animals or bacteria be there?

— Bacteria - yes, animals - hardly.

— And what other scientific specialists are there with you at the station?

— We even have astrophysicists at Novolazarevskaya station. They have a powerful telescope, they are observing the moon and other objects. The Americans, by the way, have an under-ice telescope at the South Pole. This is convenient: over Antarctica there is a high transparency of the atmosphere, and observations are not interfered with by cloudiness, nor by nearby smoking factories or agricultural enterprises. Astronomical observations are popular. We also have geologists there, magnetologists, oceanologists, and meteorologists. That is, the same people who work on the "mainland", and specific researchers.
Leopard seal lurking
Station Progress
Photo from the collection of S.Yu.Korobov
— Is it true that there are special people flipping penguins when they cannot roll over from back to stomach?

— No, it's a joke. Penguins are quite active animals, they can turn over themselves. In my impression, penguins in Antarctica are not afraid of people. Their only external enemy is the leopard sea. It eats them. Killer whales rarely eat penguins, so they have no enemies there as such. People do not hunt them, so they are not afraid of people. If you behave calmly, do not twitch, do not wave your arms, they can come pretty close. They are very curious, like all birds. If there is movement somewhere, even just unloading a ship, they take their kindergarten, lead, show. They are social animals. Emperor penguins even have special kindergartens.
Residents at Bellingshausen station
Photo from the collection of S.Yu.Korobov
Young emperor penguins are actually still cubs - they are only 2-3 months old.
Bellingshausen station
Photo from the collection of S.Yu.Korobov
Weddell seals
Station Progress
Photo from the collection of S.Yu.Korobov
— Come to people to arrange excursions for their children?

— Yes, that's right, I was an observer more than once.

This is not true for all people, but I discovered for myself that I am a contemplator. I like to watch even static - ice, icebergs, mountains. It's a pleasure. You are sitting on the shore. Somewhere in the distance, a penguin is jumping from an iceberg to an iceberg. You observe this and understand that you are not wasting your time. You contemplate nature. Here, if, for example, I come to a park in Moscow and sit on a bench, such a feeling from contemplation of nature does not arise.

Yes, it’s probably worth it... Sergey, thank you very much for answering our questions! The conversation turned out to be very interesting, but I want to ask you so much more!..

— I'll talk with you with pleasure again!
Friends, share your impressions of the interview in the comments!
Station Progress
Photo from the collection of S.Yu.Korobov

Translation prepared by Deniza Alieva
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