Brazilian Navy to Install First Autonomous Research Lab in Antarctica
By Dialogo October 31, 2011
Antarctica is about to become more crowded.
In December, Brazil will set up the Criosfera 1, the frozen continent’s first fully autonomous research and data-collecting module, located just 310 miles from the South Pole.
The research lab, funded by the Navy’s Brazilian Antarctic Program (Proantar), is not only the first of its kind to be constructed in the Antarctic interior, but will also be able to work around the clock, unmanned and without emitting any pollutants.
“There are many stations on the Antarctic coast, but inland there are very few because the conditions are significantly more difficult,” explains Jefferson C. Simões, Criosfera 1’s project leader from the National Institute of Science and Technology (INCT), which is also linked to Proantar.
Antarctica has about 50 research stations, but they occupy a very small part of the continent and are located mainly along the coast. The Criosfera 1 boosts Brazil’s Antarctic research program, which began in 1984 with the Navy’s establishment of Comandante Ferraz Station on King George Island, located 80 miles offshore.
The climatic differences between Ferraz Station and the area where the new module will be located allow very distinct areas of study and research.
At Ferraz, the temperature averages 27°F (-2.8°C), while the region of the Montes Thiel, where Criosfera 1 will be, tend to register average temperatures of -31°F (-35°C).
“Our current station is extremely important, especially for research in biosciences,” said Simões, who is Brazil’s first glaciologist and heads the Department of Glaciology at the Federal University of Rio Grande do Sul. “There is abundant work for biologists along the coast, while inland is a huge desert.”
A very lonely place
Comandante Ferraz is a fully functional, complete station that houses 40 people during the summer and 12 in the winter. In comparison, Criosfera 1, which is only a scientific module the size of a shipping container, has no living quarters.
“In the summer, 10 people will camp outside, and there won’t be anyone during the winter,” said Simões. “During the summer, we’ll conduct research on glaciology and geophysics.”
The module is fully self-supporting and will continuously send data via satellite to the operation center at Brazil’s State University of Rio de Janeiro (UERJ).
Criosfera 1 was developed by the National Institute of Spatial Research (INPE), an institution with extensive experience in satellites and other equipment that must perform in harsh conditions. Last month, it was brought to INPE headquarters in São José dos Campos to install essential pieces of equipment and conduct endurance testing.
The module is fully insulated and able to work autonomously in Antarctica’s inhospitable conditions. It will be placed at a latitude of 84.0 degrees south, some 1,550 miles from the Comandante Ferraz Station.
“The equipment was developed, integrated and tested at INPE,” said Marcelo Sampaio, a researcher who will help install the module. To ensure full sustainability, it features solar panels and eolic generators, making the use of fossil fuels unnecessary. The research equipment includes suction pumps and filters to take air samples, and well as meteorological stations.
Analyzing climate history
Cryosphere comes from the Greek kryos, meaning “cold.” That is the name scientists use to refer to parts of the Earth so cold that water is a solid, ice or snow. The cryosphere has two major components: continental or land ice, and sea ice. It covers 10 percent of the planet, which amounts to around 28 million cubic kilometers.
“That’s enough to cover the whole of Brazil with a two-mile layer of ice,” said Simões, adding that Antarctica accounts for 90 percent of the earth’s cryosphere.
Heitor Evangelista, research professor at the State University of Rio de Janeiro (UERJ), coordinates the Criosfera research project, which is a partnership between UERJ, Federal University of Rio Grande do Sul (UFRGS) and INPE. The $600,000 (R$930,000) project also involves Antarctic Logistics & Expeditions LLC, a Utah-based company that will help transport the module and provide some operational support.
During their first year of work, the scientists will research the climatic consequences of the polar region’s shrinking ozone layer and the atmospheric transmission of pollutants. The module will collect meteorological data, such as temperature, wind speed, solar radiation, CO2 and humidity. It will also measure the chemical composition of the region’s atmosphere.
“We will be able to analyze the climate history of the last 500 years,” said Simões, adding that the findings will add to research conducted by the Ferraz Station, which focuses on atmospheric dynamics, ozone, global warming, greenhouse gases, UVA radiation and oceanography.
The ice bears witness
Up until now, Brazil’s Antarctic research has focused primarily on the continent’s coastal areas, helping to advance the biological and oceanographic sciences. But Antarctica’s interior remains an untapped scientific laboratory for geosciences such as glaciology, geology and geophysics.
“The placement of this new module will advance research on the impact chemical changes in the South American atmosphere due to industrialization, transportation and burning of forests have had on Antarctica’s atmosphere,” said Simões.
Among other things, the project will drill cylinders through perforated ice “that will tell the history of the climate and atmosphere throughout thousands of years,” explained the researcher.
These “ice witnesses” offer scientists clues to past atmospheric temperatures, the size of the frozen sea, indicators of global pollution and ancient volcanic eruptions.
“The study of polar snow and ice samples are some of the most important research about the process of global climate change,” Simões said. “They provide evidence of the atmospheric temperature of the past, thanks to oxygen and hydrogen isotopes formed by the ice and snow.”
Even more important, these ice cylinders also bear witness to an increase in the two main greenhouse gases, CO2 and CH4, with CO2 concentrations rising by 40 percent since 1780.
In August, the Criosfera 1 was brought to UERJ in order to be examined by Evangelista, who had to validate its specifications. Then it went to INPE headquarters in São José dos Campos. In late September, the fully equipped Criosfera 1 continued its journey to the University of Rio Grande do Sul in Porto Alegre, and from there, by land, to Punta Arenas, Chile.
In December, the module will be flown to a runway deep in the Antarctic, and from there it’ll travel by tractor to the area near the Thiel mountain range. Fifteen scientists will be part of the Brazilian team and should arrive by Dec. 20. They’ll remain there for 25 days, working to install the module. If all goes according to plan, said INPE’s Sampaio, that should take no more than 15 days, after which Criosfera 1 will stay behind.
It is not the Navy that will be installing it and the PROANTAR is not in their jurisdiction! It is managed by a Interministerial Special Secretary.
The Navy just gives logistical support and manages the Brazilian station. This report contains serious misunderstandings! O Criosfera I is independent from the Marinha do Brasil, they are not related whatsoever. I love Antarctica. We went to a National Meteorological Institute (INMET) weather station and traveled with readings to different regions, including the region with ice. It really touched me when the Comandante Ferraz weather station caught fire. My dream is to one day visit there. Who knows....