Research Expedition of Extremes to the South Sandwich Islands

  Copyright: © N. Richter  

We had spent months working towards this expedition, and the entire GuG team had actively supported me in the preparations and the acquisition of measuring drones and sensors - had my back.

And then one morning I woke up to the vital chatter of hundreds of thousands of penguins and found myself in an expedition tent on the most remote island I've ever had the privilege of working on.

It was our third day on Zavodovski Island in the South Atlantic, which we had reached on January 22 after 8 days at sea aboard the expedition yacht 'Vinson of Antarctica'. This morning was different from the previous two: it was exceptionally calm - no wind! A glance outside confirmed our hopeful expectation of a blue sky and a clear view of the volcano's summit. This was the beginning of the most valuable and intense working day of our 10-day mission, when we found perfect conditions for operating our survey drones. The initial jubilation was immediately followed by the thought of possible failure, because if we did not reach the summit that day, suffered a drone loss, or the data acquisition was compromised by some human error, then our "mission" might remain unsuccessful.

  Copyright: © N. Richter

Already in 2019, during my first visit to this region aboard the research icebreaker Polarstern, I was deeply impressed by the pristine, raw, inhospitable yet fragile wilderness of the South Sandwich Islands and the entire South Antilles Sea. Scientifically, however, my interest is in the internal structure and stability of volcanic edifices, as well as the eruptive behavior and associated geohazards of active volcanic islands worldwide. Under polar and subpolar climatic conditions, the morphology and structural evolution and stability of a volcanic edifice are influenced by extreme erosion rates, mass movements, glacier loading (and unloading), and permafrost. Active, near-surface magmatic systems and magma veins could respond to changes in climate and environmental conditions. Near-constant degassing of the summit crater of Mt. Asphyxia (551 m a.s.l. and also known as Mt. Curry) on Zavodovski indicates the presence of a near-surface magmatic storage and transport system, making the island an exceptional study area for studying active volcanic systems and processes, including those related to climate change. However, Mt. Asphyxia belongs to a group of the most remote, inaccessible, and least studied volcanoes in Earth's South Sandwich Islands. Due to their remoteness, none of the nine active volcanoes are permanently equipped with ground-based measurement instruments, and our knowledge is based solely on optical, thermal, and radar satellite imagery, as well as data collected during the infrequent and extremely physically and logistically demanding visits.

One of our main missions was to collect photogrammetric data using a DJI Mavic 3 Enterprise drone to gene- rate a very high resolution 3D dataset of the entire Zavodovski Island. A particular focus was on two areas that already showed active surface deformations on radar satellite data over a period of time. According to our planning, seven batteries for seven separate drone flights (with coverage of 2km2 each at a survey height of 500m above the ground) should be sufficient to provide us with the so valuable data for the most detailed topographic map available at this location so far. Additional lower flights were then planned for even higher data resolutions and thermal infrared imaging of areas affected by ground deformation. This sounds quite simple in theory, but in practice it is not trivial...

  Gesprächige Nachbarn am Vulkan. Copyright: © N. Richter

For the energy supply we had generators and diesel with us and also otherwise we brought everything ashore that 8 people need for two weeks to survive beyond any civilization. These logistical hurdles were taken. However, on most of the days we spent on Zavodovski, stubbornly dense clouds hung around the volcanic cone and the wind was usually more than 25knots (while the drone can handle a maximum of ~23knots and loses battery power very quickly in these conditions). The cloud of volcanic gases that drifted continuously downwind along the volcano flank further compromised imaging conditions. So what do you focus on when you only have a single day of optimal flying conditions (i.e., clear skies and no wind)? We decided to climb to the summit, from where the two most important areas are equally within reachable distances, to collect the photogrammetric data. Our short but steep climb to the summit was rewarded with excellent conditions for successful surveys, spectacular views, magical ice for- mations, and celebratory Rocher chocolates. The same day we went back down, spent a few hours charging the batteries at camp, hiked further to the northernmost tip of the island, and also flew over the entire northern part of Zavodovski (which I also like to call the 'Penguin Woodstock' because of the particularly densely packed nests and busy 'highways'). Our work didn't end until the very last light of day. What a data hunt! Tired but relieved, we high-fived each other before disappearing back into our expedition tent to celebrate the day's success with a sip of the Falkland Islands Distillers' award-winning 'Darwin's Botanicals' gin.

  Mount Asphyxia (551 m a.s.l.) - home to more than 1.5 million penguins. Copyright: © N. Richter

On January 31 we left the island and sailed back via South Georgia to Port Stanley in the Falkland Islands. We are sure that we will still find the boulder we dragged from the cliff to the camp to fix our tents, and maybe even some of our footprints, when we are allowed to be on site for the second time in December 2023 to continue our research. Because until then, hardly any human being will set foot on this island.