Number of the Month: 700 books in the ice

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It probably isn’t every researcher’s dream to spend the entire winter in the Antarctic – living together with three other scientists, a cook, three engineers and a doctor. That is how empty it is during the winter months at Neumayer Station III, the German Antarctic research base run by the Alfred Wegener Institute. The sun puts in an appearance for just a few hours per day during the Antarctic winter – and sometimes not at all. At this time of year, the “library in the ice” can really brighten up the day of the researchers working there.

An oasis of calm

library in the ice

The small green container, which is situated 100 metres away from the research station and is completely surrounded by ice, may well be the cosiest spot in the whole Antarctic. A snugly heated room with shelves of warm cherry wood holding around 700 books awaits those who come here to browse. The walls are lined with fabric, and a desk and comfortable chair are positioned in front of the window. “For me, the library was a small outpost, an oasis of calm if you like. It’s true that it is peaceful enough at the station during the winter, but the library is a rather different place, away from the daily grind”, recalls the meteorologist Dr Holger Schmithüsen. He spent 14 months living and researching in the Antarctic.

Literature: a source of inspiration

Scientists at Neumayer III have a German artist to thank for this place of refuge. Lutz Fritsch inaugurated his unusual art project (only in German) in the Antarctic back in 2005. He came up with the idea in the 1990s during a voyage on board the Polarstern research icebreaker, which took him to the then Neumayer Station of the Alfred Wegener Institute. All of the labs and living quarters at the old station were completely under the ice. “That is why I wanted to create a weather-protected room on the ice in which the residents of the research station could gaze into the expanse of the shelf ice. My aim was to give them the chance to find some peace and inspiration here, so as to be able to ponder nature, civilisation, science and culture”, the artist explains.

Why most works are secret

The library boasts a huge selection of books, including coffee-table books, biographies, novels and works of non-fiction. All of them were donated by well-known or up-and-coming German artists, musicians, writers and scientists, and some even contain a dedication. Exactly which books the library contains is a small secret. “For us here the library thus remains fictitious, but for the scientists there it is real and contains a very special collection of books chosen precisely for this one unique place”, says Lutz Fritsch. A few of the titles have been leaked over the years, however. German Nobel Prize in Literature laureate Günter Grass is said to have sent his novel “Dog Years” to the South Pole. Holger Schmithüsen remembers a humorous “book donation”: “It also contained for example a packet of alphabet pasta on which someone had written ‘Goethe’s collected works’.”

An eye-catching idyll in the Antarctic ice

Today’s Neumayer Station III is positioned above the surface of the snow, resting on 16 supports that allow it to rise as the snow cover increases. The scientists here work in offices, laboratories and of course out on the ice. Observatories for geophysical, hydroacoustic and meteorological research have been set up in the vicinity of Neumayer III. There is also a trace compounds observatory– where scientists conduct continuous measurements to ascertain which climate-relevant gases are to be found in the Antarctic air, and in which quantities. From a distance, Neumayer III is well camouflaged because its outer walls are mainly white. The “library in the ice”, by contrast, stands out a mile. This was also the artist’s intention: “I spent a long time thinking about the right colour for the library, until I realised that it could only be green. There simply isn’t any green in the Antarctic: the ice is white, and at times grey or blue, while the protective suits worn by the polar researchers are red. So I felt that green would be the colour the overwintering scientists would be yearning for”, says Lutz Fritsch. The researchers visit their Antarctic idyll whatever the weather – not even a snowstorm can stop them.