The white continent is the backdrop for 57 scientific projects on atmospheric sciences, glaciology, microbiology, biotechnology, and evolutionary biology. The studies fall within the framework of the 53rd Antarctic Scientific Expedition (ECA, per its Spanish acronym) of the Chilean Antarctic Institute (INACh, per its Spanish acronym). The Chilean Armed Forces will provide logistical support and assets for the studies, which will run through April 2017.
“This is a tremendous opportunity in which scientists from diverse institutions will carry out various kinds of studies, which we hope will open up our sphere of research even more,” noted Marcelo Leppe, head of the scientific department of INACh, during the farewell ceremony for a group of scientists held December 7th at the Chilean Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
“We have a leadership role in this area,” said Foreign Affairs Minister Heraldo Muñoz during the official ceremony.
The 53rd ECA will cover 3,000 kilometers, from the city of Punta Arenas on the southern tip of Chile to Union Glacier, almost 1,000 kilometers from the South Pole. The studies will be conducted at six INACh bases and three bases operated by the Armed Forces. They will involve three Navy ships; airplanes and helicopters, for aerial transport; the Karpuj scientific vessel, which belongs to INACh, and support from various coastal/offshore vessels.
This year the expedition will also have logistical support or international scientific cooperation from 19 countries, including Argentina, Brazil, Canada, Colombia, Ecuador, the United States, and Mexico.
A few steps away from the South Pole
During the first phase of the 53rd ECA, the Fourth Union Glacier Scientific Expedition lasted 20 days. The Army supplied the resources and the knowledge to carry out the studies in the field. The Chilean Air Force (FACh, per its Spanish acronym) was responsible for transporting personnel and more than 30 metric tons of cargo to the glacier.
The Navy provided base support, maintenance, logistical issues, and basic necessities. “The support of the Chilean Armed Forces was fundamental in this operation,” said Félix Bartsch, head of the ECA.
After six hours of flight on board two of the FACh Hercules C-130 aircraft, the contingent of 21 scientists and service members arrived at the Union Glacier camp on November 23rd. After setting up and servicing the camp, members of the military assisted scientists in their research, especially with work that involved traveling several miles from base camp to obtain samples, test the ice, and install sensors for seven climate modeling and glaciology projects in the area.
Given the difficult conditions they will face during their stay, with temperatures reaching 15 degrees below zero Celsius, strong gusts of wind, and frequent cracks in the icy ground, the contingent underwent military acclimation training two weeks prior to the start of the expedition.
Despite the adversities, “it was a good campaign,” Captain Manuel Silva, Joint Staff Antarctic affairs delegate, told Diálogo. “Developing cutting-edge science in Antarctica doesn’t just interest Chile, but also the rest of the world.”
Scientists on the white continent are searching for answers as diverse as, what are the effects of vitamin D on the inhabitants of Antarctica? Is it possible that bacteria on Antarctic vegetation could allow products like avocados to adapt to low temperatures? How are penguins adapting to climate change in Antarctica?
From January 20th through mid-February, the Chilean Navy’s AP 41 “Aquiles” vessel participated in the second stage of the ECA, which allowed professionals from Chile and other countries to perform these and other studies. In total, there were six projects and 24 research groups deployed by the vessel to the South Shetland Islands as well as the O’Higgins and Yelcho bases.
“Without the Navy, we would not be able to achieve any of the objectives we have, or very few,” Pamela Santibáñez, the scientific coordinator for the 53rd ECA told Diálogo. “They facilitate our arrival in places that we wouldn’t have access to any other way.”
At the same time, the vessel allowed the maintenance brigade to perform repairs and upgrades of Chilean lighthouses in the Antarctic.
In its quest to encourage Antarctic science among new generations, ECA also developed the XIII Antarctic School Expedition, comprising a group of students and teachers from different regions in Chile, as well as students from the United States who were awarded a grant to participate in the Joint Antarctic School Expedition, sponsored by the National Science Foundation.
“This will be the largest and most complex Antarctic Scientific Expedition that we have organized on the white continent,” Bartsch reiterated.