Chilean Armed Forces Support Scientific Research in Antarctica

Chilean Armed Forces Support Scientific Research in Antarctica

By Geraldine Cook
January 14, 2016

Chilean Armed Forces will be providing logistical and operational support for 54 national scientific projects as well as transportation for over 200 Chilean scientists to locations throughout Antartica.

The Chilean Armed Forces are providing logistical and operational support for 54 scientific projects as part of the
69th Antarctic Campaign, which is scheduled to conclude on April 30th.

The Chilean Antarctic Institute (INACH), a scientific agency under the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, coordinates, plans, and executes scientific and technological activities for Chile in the Antarctic during the campaign. Their counterparts in the Armed Forces’ three branches – jointly or individually – are responsible for deploying resources to perform the planned tasks.

“This country enjoys a privileged point of entrance to the Antarctic because we have access to regions of very high scientific interest in terms of their global impact,” said Edgardo Vega, INACH’s deputy director. “We want to allow as many Chilean professionals as possible to conduct more and better scientific studies.”

Climate change research

The scientific projects involving analyzing the effects of climate change and its impact on several species and conducting a number of studies relating to the atmosphere, molecular biology, and nanotechnology. The scientific activities are incorporated into INACH’s 52nd annual Antarctic Scientific Expedition (ECA, for its Spanish acronym), which will cover approximately 3,000 kilometers up to Union Glacier, located 1,080 kilometers from the South Pole.

The Antarctica Campaign, which began on November 20, falls under the Third Naval Zone, and includes a complement of service members and equipment from the Chilean Army 5th Division and the Chilean Air Force (FACh) 4th Wing. In addition to supporting INACH’s scientific work, the mission includes carrying out logistical support for foreign scientists, transporting materials, providing basic necessities, deploying brigades to the Antarctic bases, activating and repairing summer bases, maintaining maritime signals, removing trash, debris and waste matter, and protecting the Antarctic region’s resources. “The Navy’s capabilities make it an irreplaceable source of logistical support,” said Captain Víctor Sepúlveda, chief of the Antarctic Division of the Office of the Chief of Naval Operations.

Two UH-05 helicopeters and four Navy ships – the “Almirante Oscar Viel” icebreaker; the “Aquiles” transport ship; the “Lautaro” patrol boat; and the Antarctic Offshore Patrol Vessel “Fuentebella,” which is being added to operations in the Southern zone for the first time – will provide the support and logistical tasks. Together, these ships will transport more than 1,000 tons of cargo and 2,000 cubic meters of fuel for Chilean operations in the Antarctic during the campaign and winter months, when weather conditions make it impossible for boats to travel there. Summer is the most suitable season for scientific research. However, that still involves temperatures from -15C to -20C, depending on the work zone, and winds over 100 km/h that contribute to wind chill.

The ECA also involves international scientific cooperation with Australia, Brazil, China, Germany, the Netherlands, and the United States. In addition, the Navy will conduct logistical cooperation with delegations from Brazil, Bulgaria, China, Korea, Norway, Poland, Portugal, and Spain that are deployed in Antarctica.

Antarctic Scientific Expedition

The 52nd ECA has a budget of $1.2 billion Chilean pesos ($1.6 million) and is being conducted in three stages. The Ministry of Defense’s Office of the Joint Chiefs of Staff was in charge of the first stage, the Union Glacier expedition, which was concluded on December 15th. This was the third iteration since the base opened in 2014. Located 1,080 km from the South Pole, the base is one of the most remote and most active stations inside the Antarctic Circle, along with the Amundsen-Scott US base and the Kunlun Chinese base.

During the Union Glacier expedition, 20 researchers from national universities executed scientific projects focused on the region’s microbiota, the Antarctic cryosphere, climate change, and the search for photosynthetic bacteria and other organisms. The complement of Naval service members used drills to extract ice cores that are thousands of years old to study microbial communities present in the glacier and evaluate the impact of climate change on melting ice. “Microbial communities are significant for the Antarctic ecosystem, given they are the foundation of the interaction network among organisms,” Vega said.

During January, when weather conditions in the Antarctic region are most conducive to research, the Almirante Oscar Viel icebreaker executes the second stage involving the South Shetland Islands, in Marguerite Bay, where six researchers are studying how plant and bird species are adapting to climate change and the extreme wind and salinity conditions. The expedition’s final stage will occur in the area of the Antarctic Sea, including in Maguerite Bay and at Yelcho base.

One of this campaign’s most significant milestones was the launch of INACH’s “Karpuj” ship – the first vessel in the country capable of conducting science experiments. In December and January, the Navy tested and evaluated the 25-meter ship to ensure it can be operational by the end of January. “(Karpuj) marks the beginning of new opportunities for the national scientific community,” Vega said.

The ship, which has laboratories on board, can transport cargo and a small group of people. It is also the first science vessel based in Antarctica that can be used to conduct scientific projects throughout the year.

Early preparation

The Army’s 5th Division – specifically personnel from the Antarctic Ground Exploration Unit (UETA, for its Spanish acronym) – conducted preparation work for the ECA. UETA service members prepared the areas used for scientific research and dug out the base modules that had been covered by snow.

Meanwhile, the FACh’s 4th Aviation Brigade trained INACH scientists in the skills and abilities needed to overcome snowy terrain and conduct scientific expeditions safely in the Antarctic. In conjunction with the scientific project, the 69th Antarctic Campaign is performing the 19th Joint Naval Antarctic Patrol (PANC) between the Navies of Argentina and Chile from November 15, 2015 to March 31st.

Chile is using the Navy’s “Lautaro” patrol boat, while Argentina selected the Navy’s “Suboficial Castillo” ship to carry out the PANC, which includes practicing rescue and lifesaving techniques as well as protecting the environment. “This experience with Argentina has been important,” Capt. Sepúlveda explained. “From the start, we have been correcting and perfecting procedures, agreements, and our communication codes.”

As long as there are no emergencies, the ships assigned to the PANC will also be involved in repairing and replacing maritime signals, personnel transport, and hydrography, which enable them to publish nautical maps for international use. “[PANC] is an internationally recognized activity due to its significance in ensuring the security of operations conducted around the Antarctic peninsula – an area traversed by many ships performing logistical tasks and for tourism,” Capt. Sepúlveda said. “Fortunately so far, we have not had any emergencies.”