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A Path in the Snow

Experts identify five topics as focal points for Brazilian science on the frozen continent

Researchers now have two Navy ships to use in Antarctic research (2 and 4) and one data collection module (3) installed 2,500 km from the Comandante Ferraz Station (1) that will be rebuilt in two years, after experiencing a fire.

Researchers now have two Navy ships to use in Antarctic research (2 and 4) and one data collection module (3) installed 2,500 km from the Comandante Ferraz Station (1) that will be rebuilt in two years, after experiencing a fire.

The community of researchers devoted to studying Antarctica is discussing a document that proposes a major change in the scientific objectives of the Brazilian Antarctic Program (Proantar) to be made over the next 10 years. Open for public consultation during the month of May, the report entitled Antarctic Science for Brazil/An Action Plan for 2013-2022 was produced by a group of nine experts commissioned by the Ministry of Science, Technology, and Innovation (MCTI). In general the recommendation is for a sharper focus on research, with an emphasis on the influence that the frozen continent has on the climate, atmosphere, biodiversity, or geological formation of the South Atlantic.

“We need to invest in research that makes an impact, that investigates the connections between Antarctica and Brazil,” says glaciologist Jefferson Cardia Simões, a professor at the Federal University of Rio Grande do Sul (UFRGS) and coordinator of the group that produced the document. Criticisms and suggestions received from the scientific community are to be incorporated into the report. The MCTI’s intention is to use it as a parameter for selecting research projects to be conducted under a new Proantar request for proposals that will be announced at the end of 2013.

The plan recommends that projects address five major topics. The first would focus on interactions between the ice and the atmosphere, with special attention to the role of the ice-covered land area, or cryosphere, on the climate of the southern hemisphere. The second involves the effects of climate change on Antarctica biodiversity and the connections between its ecosystems and those of South America. The third addresses the vulnerability of the Southern Ocean to climate change. The fourth would examine Antarctica’s role in the break-up of the super-continent known as Gondwana of which the frozen continent, South America, and Africa were all part, in order to understand the influence of that event on Brazilian petroleum resources. The fifth involves impacts of the thinning of the ozone layer on climate at the South Pole.

The report recommends that attention be paid to new research frontiers, such as astronomy on the Antarctic plateau, biodiversity under extreme conditions, and even social sciences, such as archaeology, the sociology of science, and geopolitics. Another front suggests studying connections with the North Pole. The plan also points to the need to train specialists and facilitate their absorption into the university system and the nation’s research efforts. “It is vital to study all the processes related to the Antarctic continent and the Southern Ocean that may have a potential impact on Brazil,” says Janice Trotte Duhá, MCTI coordinator for the Sea and Antarctica.

The proposal, says Jefferson Simões, seeks to enhance the significance of research being done by Brazilians in Antarctica and make full use of the research infrastructure in the region. The equipment consists of two Navy ships (the polar research vessel Almirante Maximiano and the support vessel Ary Rongel), the new research station that should be ready in two years, and Cryosphere I, a Brazilian scientific module situated 2,500 km to the south of the station. “The objective is to establish a scientific policy for Antarctica, which we have never really had,” says the researcher. “A country’s voice in the Antarctic Treaty depends a lot on the quality of research it is doing in the region. We should at least be the leader among the BRICS, but China, India, and Russia invest more in research than Brazil does,” he states.

In the opinion of Antonio Carlos Rocha-Campos, retired professor of the Geosciences Institute at the University of São Paulo (USP), and coordinator of that university’s Center for Antarctic Research, the plan selected important topics, but has some flaws. “At first glance, I see a heavy emphasis on atmospheric studies to the detriment of other areas,” he says. He also sees some formal problems with the proposal. “It doesn’t consider the scientific programs already in progress under Proantar,” he says. He thinks it will be difficult to start to implement new directives this year: “The studies connected with the last Proantar RFP were supposed to be completed in 2013, but some of them are probably running behind because of the fire that damaged the Comandante Ferraz Station last year.”

The history of Brazilian research in Antarctica has had some ups and downs. Shortly after establishing Proantar and installing the Brazilian station, in the 1980s, research in the region was prompted almost exclusively by researcher curiosity. “It was a retail approach,” Rocha-Campos recalls. That changed a little in the late 1990s, when the Antarctic Treaty required that each member country conduct studies on the environmental impact of its presence in Antarctica. Contrary to what happened in the early days of the program, now only one-third of the research done in Antarctica depends on the Comandante Ferraz Station—expeditions, studies about the Southern Ocean, projects in cooperation with other countries, and the Cryosphere I module have boosted researcher interest in the region. A recent leap forward occurred because of an induced initiative. Two of the 144 National Institutes of Science and Technology (INCT) are devoted to research in Antarctica. “The first generation of researchers trained to study Antarctica is beginning to leave the scene. We need to prepare the way for the younger folks,” says Simões, who plans to shut down his expeditions in two years. He was the first Brazilian to reach the geographic South Pole by land, in 2004.