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A continent of solid water

Alexander Lisitsyn an outstanding scientist, geologist, member of the Russian Academy of Sciences, chief researcher of the P.P.Shirshov Institute of Oceanology

On the 65th anniversary of the first Soviet Antarctic expedition, we are publishing the memoirs of Alexander Lisitsyn, an outstanding geologist, member of the Russian Academy of Sciences, chief researcher of the P.P.Shirshov Institute of Oceanology, prepared  at the request of the editorial staff of the USC’s journal in 2019

This material by Alexander Lisitsyn became one of the last, published during the life of the scientist. Alexander Petrovich died on 11 February 2020

This year marks the 200th anniversary of the discovery of Antarctica by Russian seagoers Thaddeus Bellingshausen and Mikhail Lazarev. This new severe land has since become an object of attraction for scientists from around the world. Systematically, Russia returned to the study of Antarctica only in the middle of the 20th century. At that time the first Soviet Antarctic expedition was sent to the South Pole of the Earth. This initiative launched the most ambitious research project ever undertaken in this unfriendly region.

As many as 37 expeditions were sent to the sixth continents during the program implementation. The Soviet discoveries of that period, among which was the discovery of subglacial Lake Vostok (The East), which became the largest geographical discovery of our time, had a very strong influence on the world scientific thought, changing human concepts of climate, ocean and geology.


It was in the spring of 1955 when I first heard about the preparation of the expedition to the Antarctic from Ivan Papanin, who was deputy director of the Institute of Oceanology of the Soviet Academy of Sciences at that time. The task was ambitious, i.e. to organize on the other side of the Earth, in the Southern Hemisphere, an observatory for year-round observations and simultaneously conduct the first research in the Southern Ocean, known among sailors for its severe storms.

The interest of scientists towards the Antarctic has always been great. It is no wonder as it is the entire continent without a single settlement, without animals and plants; there you can find water only in a solid state. According to geological data, conditions, similar to the ones of the contemporary Antarctic, existed in the past throughout Europe, up to the Urals, as well as in North America. Huge territories were covered by a powerful 2-3 km thick ice cap. Nevertheless, the Antarctic glacier outranked the European one in its dimensions.

The distinctive feature of the Antarctic is that it has been for millennia and still is the major area of continental glaciers, where one can observe the work of a kind of a natural ice thermometer while the edge of its top alternatively is going to the ocean or shrinking.   

It became more and more obvious for researchers that it was not possible to predict the climate of the future and study its changes in the past without the account of operational mechanism of these huge Antarctic self-sustained refrigerators.  

Famous polar explorer Ivan Papanin became an architect of the project on the assault of the Antarctic and the Southern Ocean. For this purpose, it was necessary to deploy maritime research studies in the Southern Hemisphere while this half of the Earth was studied insufficiently and practically was not frequented by Soviet expeditions. In addition, it was only five years after the end of the Great Patriotic War. The country only started the restoration process and had to be economical in all aspects.   

Nevertheless, Ivan Papanin’s ambitious plans were destined to be delivered. The organization of a unique expedition was entrusted to the Academy of Sciences of the USSR, and the structures of Morflot, Hydrometeorological Service and the Glavsevmorput were also involved to provide technical support. But even with the account of these combined efforts of the leading institutes, the Complex Antarctic Expedition of the Academy of Sciences of the USSR (CAE AS USSR) became one of the most difficult in history.

Professor Mikhail Somov was entrusted with the responsibility of the overall management of the works on the continent in the first year of operation. Professor Vladimir Kot, director of the Institute of Oceanology, was in charge of the works in the ocean. The continental part was supposed to stay for wintering to proceed with all-year observations and process materials, collected in the first summer. First and foremost, it was necessary to build an entire settlement on the ice top, and then to start first field studies of the continent before the start of the polar night. 


For field works in the polar latitudes, the main transportation assets were aviation and sled tractor trains, i.e. heavy caterpillar tractors with sled trailers and insulated beams. The members of the expedition had to overcome numerous problems. The work of aviation was restrained by poor radio and meteorological support, weather conditions and the absence of airfields. The studies with the use of tractor trains were dangerous due to deep cracks on the surface of the glacier. Nevertheless, tractors were finally used to study the ice dome and cover thousand kilometers of routes. 

Already the first data on the continent showed that the glacier was not just a giant block of ice; it was an ice system of truly cosmic dimensions. The glacier continuously moves along the stone surface of the bed.

With the glacial shell thickness of 1-3 km, ice presses against the stone bed with tremendous force, and the lower layers of ice capture large and small fragments of earth materials during this movement. A natural stone crusher is formed, or a giant, gigantic size, abrasive machine that turns the rocks into fine powder mixed with stone fragments. These “mechanisms” are global in scope; their area is about 12-14 thousand square kilometers, and their work is audible by numerous interferences on seismic records.

All that was found out by the first four expeditions. 


A unique research vessel from the point of view of its characteristics was required for the work in severe conditions of high latitudes of the Southern Hemisphere, nicknamed “roaring forties” and “frantic fifties” by sailors, at a wave height of up to two tens of meters and in difficult ice conditions. It was supposed to be at least twice the size of the legendary “Vityaz”, it had to be distinguished by outstanding seaworthiness and, at the same time, not to the detriment of controllability and maneuverability; it had to provide a low level of noise and vibration, and also possess an increased ice class. Another major requirement was modern navigation equipment, as it had to operate in those parts of the sea, for which maps simply did not exist at that time.

Two cargo-passenger diesel electric vessels “Ob” and “Lena” with a displacement of 12 thousand tons each were built at the Dutch shipyards for the purposes of the expedition.  


For this, at least six “Ocean” electric hoists were needed on the deck.  They were installed on the two sides of the vessel and at the stern, which ensured operation in the conditions of consolidated ice when using the vessel’s propeller.

A heavy double-drum hoist was also installed on the vessel for trawling at depths of up to 8-10 thousand meters and for working with heavy large diameter seabed corers of up to 5 tons. This made it possible to obtain samples not only from the bottom surface, but also from layers, which are hundreds of thousands years old.

And to study the extracted samples and subsequent data processing, four modern research laboratories were deployed onboard with an autonomous electrical system for measuring instruments and communication with the deck. Those were adapted for operation in rolling.

At that time, a milestone in science was the study of sediment, contained in water. Scattered in the thickness of sea waters, as well as in the atmosphere, snow and ice, it forms the upper layer of bottom sediments. Scientists have guessed that by studying such sediments and material, suspended in water, it was possible to judge on a variety of natural processes. This is a kind of a “natural recorder”.

The difficulty of this method was explained by the fact that sedimentary particles in water are negligible, and the instruments of that time had a much worse sensitivity than the present-day ones, so it was necessary to process huge volumes of deep water. To solve this problem, specially developed bathometers of 200 and 400 liters with specific sediment traps were installed on the “Ob” vessel. And for the separation of suspended matter from water, industrial human-sized separators were used, which were normally applied in the medical industry for the manufacturing of antibiotics. Here, right on board, it was possible to create the world’s first separation laboratory with machines of other types, i.e. drum and disс-shaped.

Apart from laboratories, equipped in line with the latest technology, two Soviet-made echo sounders of the latest modification were mounted on the vessel, one for deep-sea and the other one – for shallow waters. These devices worked continuously on the move. With their use, an atlas of data on the structure of the bottom of the Southern Ocean was drawn up, which formed the basis of the country’s navigation charts. The volume and complexity of works on the reequipment of “Ob” into a research vessel was really huge. But this mission was accomplished in full scale and in a timely manner. Without delay, “Ob” began to take on board an endless flow of special cargoes, i.e. airplanes, tractors, helicopters, all-terrain vehicles, residential compartments, power plants - all in all around 5 thousand tons.

But still it was not enough just to install research equipment on the vessel. It was necessary to learn how to work with it in conditions of the merciless roll of the “frantic fifties”, when any lifted load turns into a dangerous pendulum.

Samples of bottom sediments had to be taken with operating machines, driving the ice away with a propeller at low speeds. To do this, it was necessary to stabilize “Ob” against the wind, taking into account the drift. It was not at all simple as the gusts of wind were falling down the huge vessel. The waves were doing the same. Rolling along the deck, they often reached the height of the captain’s bridge, so that the hoists operators had to fasten themselves to the guard rails. Nevertheless, the first test of the vessel on the shelf of the Davis Sea in the shore ice during frosts and strong winds showed that work in such conditions was possible. The high ice-going ability of the vessel was confirmed already at the first overcoming of the ice belt near “Mirny”, and it continued to bring positive sentiments throughout the expedition to the Eastern Antarctica, and during the second voyage “Ob” even freed the Japanese icebreaker “Soya” from the ice belt.

During the first four voyages of the “Ob” vessel, numerous discoveries were made, which became important for all the subdisciplines of the geosciences. The shelf was investigated. It plunged under the influence of the load of the ice dome by 100-200 meters so that its edge ran parallel to the edge of the glacier. This place is now called the Lazarev Valley. It became possible as well to draw up a bathymetric map of the Davis Sea, on the shore of which the “Mirny” Observatory is located. Besides, the underwater elevations of the “Ob” and “Lena” vessels were discovered, the middle ridges of the Southern Ocean were crossed, which in those years were only in the beginning of the exploration phase. Later on, this became treated as the beginning of the era of studying tectonics of lithospheric plates.


The system of four-dimensional oceanological studies was developed during those works. In addition to the three coordinates, i.e. latitude, longitude and depth, the fourth dimension appeared, which was time. In the study of suspended matter and bottom sediments, scientists were able to correlate events of the distant past that took place in the ocean and on the continents. Such a comparative study in the Southern Hemisphere was made for the first time, and it was far from being comprehensive.

The work of the continental party showed that the ice dome of Antarctica had a height of about four kilometers, and this is the present-day area of the most severe climatic conditions on Earth, where the temperature level closely approaches truly extraterrestrial parameters, reaching negative values down to - 89.2 °С.

Antarctica became the biggest world’s nature reserve, and it has been keeping this status for more than 60 years

A comparison of glacierization at the South and North Pole clearly indicates: the severity of the climate is determined by the type of crust - continental or oceanic, and the conditions on the latter are always milder. It is interesting that in the history of the Earth there have already been changes in the types of crust in areas with the most severe climate. Scientists have learned to predict such metamorphoses based on the motion vectors of the continental parts of lithospheric plates.

It is also possible to say that when a continental part of a lithospheric plate enters the Arctic Ocean, the climate of Europe and Asia will change dramatically towards cooling-down. And if at the same time the position of the continental plate remains the same, a global minimum of temperature will be reached, which will be of down to –100 °С and even lower! The maximum glacierization will come when the continental crust is simultaneously above the two poles.

All of the above permits to state that tectonics of lithospheric plates has a serious impact on the history of the environment and climate. The Institute of Oceanology of the Russian Academy of Sciences has been carrying out works on its studies during the past 30 years. Those works show that in the areas of the middle ranges in the ocean waters, there is a significant amount of endogenous substance of hot (up to 1200 °C) magma that comes in contact with water. At the same time, the properties of water change, and it turns into a fluid, aggressive to basaltic lava, then basalts dissolve like sugar in a glass of tea, and form sulfide structures of ore minerals and hydrothermal flares.

A remarkable discovery of these years is that the main deposits of copper, zinc and other heavy metals on the continent are associated with sulphide ores, which are up to 500 million years old. By minerals, chemical composition and nutrient residues in the sulphide ores of the Southern Urals, the crust there can only be defined as oceanic.

To study the history of these processes is a very important task of the theory of lithospheric plates, while the ice shield of the Antarctic is one of the main indicators in paleoclimatology. 


During the works of the marine party of the expedition, calls were made to New Zealand’s Wellington, the Australian port of Adelaide, to Cape Town and Hamburg. Not only regular port visits by “Ob” were organized; there were also separate meetings with leading scientists of universities, geologists, sailors.  

The meetings with Douglas Mawson from the University of Adelaide were especially important. He was called Nansen of the Southern Hemisphere and devoted all his life to the studies of the part of Antarctica, belonging to Australia. After visiting “Ob”, he invited our scientists to the university and presented reprints of his research works. The participation of the Australian Minister of Lands in these meetings was also very important.

A week-long visit of the expedition to Hamburg was no less productive for the establishment of international contacts. The scientists had an opportunity to make several presentations and organize consultations, including the ones on the construction of the first ice-breaking vessel in Germany, which was called “Polarstern” and was supposed to be similar to “Ob” from the point of view of its function. The experience of the voyages of our vessel turned out to be very useful for this issue. Later on, Russian scientists participated in several voyages of “Polarstern” to the Arctic and Antarctic. Scientific cooperation was established in the continental part as well. Many foreign scientists were wintering in “Mirny”, and our scientists – on stations of other countries. Mutual assistance in distress, when planes and helicopters crashed, was also very important. 

The discussion of joint works in Antarctica ultimately ended up with a triumphal agreement of 12 countries on December 2, 1959, when the sixth continent was declared free for scientific research without the right to place military or industrial facilities there.

In such a way Antarctica became the biggest world’s nature reserve, and it has been keeping this status for more than 60 years. The Soviet Antarctic Expedition paved way for our science to the South Pole and littoral parts of the Southern Ocean. 


screenwriter and director of the “Clear Science” project  

Our film crew came to visit Alexander Lisitsyn in the middle of a working week in the P.P. Shirshov Institute of Oceanology of the Russian Academy of Sciences. Alexander Pertovich received us in his office. Irrespective of his respectable age, he never stopped serving the science!  

I will always remember that day, my acquaintance with Academician Lisitsyn and the way he nagged discontentedly at our filming preparations: “Don’t move this! You need it just to have a nice picture, and I will have to sort out the mess for a week... Hang it back on its place!” But what I initially treated as quarrelsomeness turned out to be a reverent and fair attitude to the place where a person stays alone with scientific documents. There were so many of them, i.e. maps, books, maps again. It seemed that the scientist’s office was drowning in them. And with all this, he continued to work in his 96 years! The interview was a success. Not every person can open up in front of a camera in such a way, talk so easily and naturally about complex things, sincerely laugh at himself and curiosities of the past, which
in those distant years could cost a life. Don’t forget that the story was about Antarctica! It is becoming difficult over time to surprise a journalist, who in his or her official capacity interviews many interesting people. But I’m sure Alexander Petrovich was able to make a strong impression. And I still remember that impression. Such people do change other people around them with the help of their outstanding intellect, strong energy and a big sensitive heart. I am very glad that I was lucky to meet this outstanding scientist Alexander Lisitsyn.

A continent of solid water
A continent of solid water
A continent of solid water
A continent of solid water
A continent of solid water
A continent of solid water
A continent of solid water
A continent of solid water