Chilean Army Helps Build Shelters in Southern Patagonian Ice Field

Chilean Army Helps Build Shelters in Southern Patagonian Ice Field

By Dialogo
December 02, 2015

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The Cochrane 20th Andean Company, under the Chilean Army's Fourth Division, has provided crucial support to the Scientific Studies Center (CECs) in its research in the Southern Patagonian Ice Field, one of the most remote and least explored areas in the country’s south.

Since late 2014, the “Sentinels of the Southern Patagonian Ice Field” – as the members of this specialized mountain military unit are called – have helped install seven modular shelters that make up a base of operations on the O’Higgins Glacier in the northern part of the Southern Patagonian Ice Field.

Prior to transporting equipment to the site and setting up shelters and instruments to measure snow and rainfall, the Fourth Division performed reconnaissance flights to define the perimeter of the location for the center of operations. Then, they proceeded to travel on land to the site where the shelters were built along the border at Marconi Pass, the last point in the Southern Patagonian Ice Field's Aysén Region.

“It is important to cooperate in the exercise of effective sovereignty, and the best way to do so is to establish a presence in isolated areas that have geopolitical value for the country, such as this site,” said Lieutenant Colonel Álvaro Salgado Bahamondes, Operations Officer for the Army's Fourth Division.

A collaborative effort

The shelters on the Southern Patagonian Ice Field are a collaborative effort between the Extreme Architecture Unit at Federico Santa María Chilean Technical University and the Fourth Division's Projects and Infrastructure Department. In addition to consolidating Chile’s presence in the region, the units – also called domes – provide a safe resting place for military patrols, a venue to conduct instructional and training activities, and a spot for civilians to develop scientific research and use during expeditions.

“They can be used for glaciological research, studies on biodiversity, climate change, microbiology, sustainable extreme architecture, alternative energy sources, the psychological effects of extreme habitats, etcetera," explained Pedro Serrano, director of Federico Santa Maria University's Extreme Architecture Unit. "[They can also help with] geographical exploration, training for expeditions, and establishing a presence in our territory.”

Each shelter, which measures 24 square meters and has room for eight people, consists of semi-curved pre-fabricated modules that are assembled on site, transportable, and have solid and permanent matrices. They are outfitted with dry toilets and a photovoltaic electrical system with batteries and LED lights. There are two passive ventilation systems – one at the ground level, for gravitational ventilation of carbon dioxide, and another at the top that uses outside airflow and wind speed to refresh the air inside. The base has a metallic structure, polyester modules reinforced with fiberglass, polyurethane insulation, a Gelcoat topcoat (a resin dyed international orange), double-paned windows of clear acrylic, plywood, and rubber pavement.

“It can withstand wind erosion conditions of up to 200 km/h (sling anchor system) and particulates and solar radiation at temperatures up to -40°C,” Serrano said, adding the shelters can also withstand being covered by over three meters of snow.

The Public Works Ministry’s Water Bureau (DGA) expects to have detailed information by the end of 2016 on the glaciers’ behavior, including a description of each and indicia of global warming, in addition to the area's network of meteorological stations, which authorities use to make decisions on potential uses of that territory.

Assisting scientific researchers

The shelters assist researchers in their efforts to build a glaciological and hydro-meteorological system to monitor glaciers. The research will continue through December 2016, according to the project, “Glaciological Baseline of the Northern Section of the Southern Patagonian Ice Field: Jorge Montt, Témpano and O’Higgins Glaciers,” drafted and directed by the Ministry of Public Works' Water Bureau's Glaciology and Snow Unit.

Stretching 350 kilometers north to south and 60 kilometers across, the Southern Patagonian Ice Field is the world’s third largest continental ice sheet, after Antarctica and Greenland. Located in southern Chile's Aysén Region 11, it is 2,039 kilometers from Santiago and considered the largest fresh water reserve in the world.

However, the glaciers originating from the millennial mountain range, such as O’Higgins, Montt, and Témpano, have been damaged by the effects of climate change, leading to a thinning and withdrawal of the original ice mass, according to DGA studies.

“[This shows the need for this] glaciological research platform, which is unheard of in this country if we consider its complexity and scale, said Andrés Rivera, a CEC glaciologist and member of the research team. "In the next few years, it will allow us to study the Southern Patagonian Ice Field with an unprecedented level of detail and precision."

Well-trained team

Soldiers accustomed to operating in remote regions under harsh weather conditions are assisting the project. During expeditions on glaciers, the company frequently faces hostile weather conditions, winds up to 100 km/h, whiteouts, snowstorms, and temperatures as low as -40ºC – all in a territory far removed from civilization with which it's very difficult to communicate by land or air.

Consequently, the Cochrane 20th Andean Company undergoes rigorous training; soldiers drill for five years, which include deployment in snowy areas. They are taught how to scale mountains, use amphibious equipment, use rotary wing units for vertical take-offs (quick rope), administer first aid, and survival techniques for snowy environments.

The work in the Southern Patagonian Ice Field also has allowed the company to “train on terrain whose complexity increases [the company’s] technical capabilities,” Lt. Col. Bahamondes said.