After a 75-day voyage in which scientists conducted 19 research projects under the Colombian Antarctic Program (PAC, per its Spanish acronym), the Colombian Naval Vessel ARC 20 de julio returned to Cartagena on March 1st, bringing to a close the Third Colombian Antarctic Scientific Expedition “Almirante Padilla.” Ninety-six crewmembers, including scientists, Navy personnel, and support staff, put their skills to the test as they sailed 14,000 nautical miles, overcoming extreme conditions to demonstrate their country’s commitment to environmental protection and the acquisition of knowledge on the white continent.
As reported by the Colombian Ocean Commission, the expedition had two components. The first was the ARC 20 de julio, a Colombian ship with 23 researchers aboard. The second was the international cooperation in which 10 researchers from Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Ecuador, and Peru joined PAC.
“Like the other nations of Latin America, we need to have the ability to decide what will happen in Antarctica moving forward,” Captain Ricardo Torres, scientific coordinator of the Third Colombian Antarctic Scientific Expedition, told Diálogo.
Science as the pathway
As a member of the Antarctic Treaty, Colombia currently has a voice but no vote, which is why it wants to have its status changed. “The key to being able to make the leap from non-consultative to consultative member is precisely to make contributions to science,” Capt. Torres added.
The Antarctic Treaty was signed in Washington, D.C., in 1959, by 12 countries that determined that the region should be used for peaceful and scientific purposes. Colombia began its observer role in the late 1980s, and since August 2016, it has been an associate member of the Scientific Committee on Antarctic Research, according to information published on the Colombian Ministry of Foreign Affairs website.
Colombia’s status in the treaty has improved thanks to the scientific expeditions it has achieved, as well as the backing that PAC enjoys from domestic entities, from the Office of the Vice President and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to the Colombian Navy, the Naval Cadet School, the Naval NCO School, the General Maritime Directorate “and all the universities that believe in science beyond borders,” Capt. Torres added.
The road to research
After setting sail from Cartagena on December 16, 2016, the ARC 20 de julio crossed the Pacific Ocean, covering more than 5,000 nautical miles. It crossed through dangerous places such as the Gulf of Penas and the Drake Passage to reach Antarctica. “We had to navigate very carefully, very surgically, paying a lot of attention,” Captain Jorge Ricardo Espinel, commander of the ARC 20 de julio, told Diálogo. In the Drake Passage, for example, winds can reach more than 50 and 60 knots and waves can rise up to 10 meters.
Participating institutions also worked on navigational security, the relationship between South America and Antarctica, climate change, biodiversity, and Antarctic ecosystems, as well as naval and oceanographic engineering, biology, hydrography, meteorology, marine morphology, and biotechnology. One of the clearest contributions the Colombian scientists are hoping to make is to study the relationships between Antarctica and tropical seas, availing themselves of the knowledge they already have about both.
It was essential for researchers to have use of the ARC 20 de julio ship because it has been customized to remain out of port for prolonged periods of time. Its two 20-foot containers were used, “one as a mobile laboratory that allowed the scientists to process and store samples with minimal equipment, and the other as a mobile oceanographic platform outfitted to lower equipment to take samples and transmit information directly from the depths,” Capt. Espinel explained.
Colombia’s equipment was also used by their peers from other nations, serving as support for things like supplying desalinated water to the Chilean base at Yelcho or oil to the Argentine base. “There are always good relations with everyone there because everyone goes there with the same goal, which is to do research, generate knowledge, and maintain and support the conservation of Antarctica,” Capt. Espinel said.
The Colombian Navy announced in a press release that the main achievements were Colombia’s role in promoting comprehensive maritime security using trained personnel and meeting international standards of cooperation as well as expanding the Permanent Commission for the South Pacific’s databases on marine biodiversity.
The Colombian Navy’s operational triad (a ship, a helicopter, and a Coast Guard unit) helped to carry out scientific research and provided assistance to other nations operating in Antarctica, facilitating diving operations, navigation, and welding in icy waters, as well as collecting sample microorganisms such as zooplankton.
The ARC 20 de julio returned to its home port in Cartagena, Colombia, on March 1st. It has now returned to its regular patrol duties. Meanwhile, scientists are processing the data they collected and the Colombian Antarctic Program is planning the next phases of research.