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Racing on ice

After the tragedy at their station, Brazilian researchers discuss how to product science that is more competitive in Antarctica

ROSALINDA MONTONEThe Comandante Ferraz Station in December 2006: 60 modules formed a villageROSALINDA MONTONE

The reconstruction of the Comandante Ferraz Station, the Brazilian research base in Antarctica, destroyed by a fire on the morning of February 25, will only begin in two years’ time and is expected to be complete by 2016. The tragedy, in which two soldiers died, was caused by a fire in power generators and had at least one immediate effect. It re-launched the debate about the Brazilian research ambitions on the frozen continent and the strategies necessary for the work to gain more relevance. The scientists agree that the station should be rebuilt in such a way as to increase safety and guarantee special support for the researchers. Until now, the complex and costly supply logistics and staff transport in the hands of the Navy often left the scientific goals in second place.

There is also a common understanding that the financing model for research in Antarctica, based on public notices of the National Scientific and Technological Development Council (CNPq), which sponsor projects for a two-year term, calls for improvement. It needs to guarantee resources for long-term projects, especially for programs concerned with climate change data. Although not broadly know, Antarctica’s influence on Brazil’s climate is comparable with that of the Amazon. “Climate change is a major research topic in Antarctica involving areas such as glaciology, meteorology and biology,” said Antonio Carlos Rocha-Campos, a retired professor from the Biosciences and Geosciences Institute at USP and the university’s Antarctica Research Center coordinator. With a 13.6 million square kilometer area that is almost entirely covered by glaciers, Antarctica is the highest, coldest and driest continent, and it experiences the strongest winds on the planet.

Jefferson Cardia Simões, a glaciologist, a Federal University of Rio Grande do Sul (UFRGS) professor and the first Brazilian to reach the South Pole by land in a scientific expedition in 2004, believes that a new research management model is also desirable in Antarctica. “It isn’t a question of merely having a new station, but rather of rebuilding it with a certain aspects in mind” says Simões, and he mentions a few: cooperation with other countries, allowing cost sharing and raising research quality, expedition camp support in other regions, and making the researchers’ work more rational. “The scientific community needs to make decisions about station management and about research on Antarctica. Today, logistics, operated by the Navy, and science, in the hand of the researchers, compete with one another. On a daily basis, priorities get lost because of too much demand,” the researcher says. The number of Brazilians involved in research on Antarctica has grown. Therefore, the pressure to spend entire seasons on the continent, with all the associated costs and logistics, has grown stronger. “It’s impossible for everyone to go out into the field every year. There’s a time to collect data and another one to analyze it. And there’s research that can be done without going to Antarctica, merely using data collected there” says the glaciologist.

Historically, the bottleneck of the Brazilian Antarctic Program (Proantar) used to be the possibility to visit the station.

ARMANDO HADANO/INPEUSP researchers collect data close to the station: 40% of the research projects were affectedARMANDO HADANO/INPE

There are some 250 Brazilian researchers currently involved in studying this frozen continent. The station has the capacity to accommodate about 20% of this number. It is not always possible to enjoy the full potential on the base. In 2009, the Navy incorporated a polar ship, Almirante Maximiano, for its work in the region. However, in 2011, she practically worked on her own as Ary Rongel, the oceanographic ship supporting the station, had been damaged. Those who do manage to secure a spot on the station also face uncertainties . “I’ve already spent an entire week without being able to go out due to weather conditions, unfavorable for data collection” says Rosalinda Montone, the USP Oceanographic Institute’s professor whose group lost a significant portion of their data about organic pollutants in marine environment to the fire this summer. “We will only be able to recover a small part of it,” she says.

A place on the ship and in the station
The chance to travel on two Navy ships and spend a season in the station is usually reserved for projects included in CNPq’s periodic announcements and, more recently, in the two National Science and Technology Institutes (INCT) dedicated to Antarctic research. One of the latter focuses on the role that the mass of ice has on the local climate and studies the fluctuation of the Antarctic climate and its influence on Brazil. The other focuses on the impact of human activity on the Antarctic environment. “The selection of projects is very strict and we have moved towards creating networks instead of stimulating the work of individual researchers,” says Jefferson Simões.

There is a recurring complaint about lack of investment in long-term projects. “The fact that one of the National Institute for Space Research (INPE) groups was not selected in CNPq’s final announcement meant that we had to interrupt a set of meteorological data from the station as there was no one to collect it ” says Ronald Buss de Souza, oceanographer and head of INPE’s Antarctic program. Ilana Wainer, a professor at USP’s Oceanographic Institute, emphasizes the importance of funding data collection that will benefit groups looking for information about the continent without necessarily going there every summer. “We’ve never been as well financed as now, but it takes more than two-year projects to ensure the monitoring of climate variables. It would be important to have continuous funding,” said Ilana, whose work on modeling the Antarctic climate depends to a large extent on Southern Ocean data and on the variation in the area of sea ice. She is greatly dependent on the availability of two Navy ships, which are important for collecting data about the ocean. The station fire and the use of ships for logistics is likely to compromise one of Ilana’s projects, Paleoantar, which expected to obtain ice samples to try to understand the so-called defrost pulsation, a possible trigger for climate variations.


036_Antartida_194She says, however, that Brazil does not need to invest alone and mentions the Southern Ocean Observing System (Soos). This newly created, multidisciplinary network aims to conduct Southern Ocean observations to supply data on climate change, rising sea levels and the impact of global warming on marine ecosystems for various research lines. “Just one country can’t do it,” she says. She reminds us that studies on climate processes on a local scale are on the edge of a breakthrough and that computer models are having a difficulty simulating the interaction between the climate on Antarctica and the Southern hemisphere. In one example of research that can benefit these models, Ilana’s team, in cooperation with researchers from Rio de Janeiro and France, came to the conclusion that the expansion of the hole in the ozone layer over Antarctica in the 1980s led to a wind regime change on the frozen continent with an impact on sea surface temperature in Bahia. “We found a cause and effect relationship between the decline of corals and the growth of the ozone hole. The hole increased the temperature difference between the Antarctic and the tropics intensifying the wind and there was a decrease in the growth of corals in Bahia. Although the gap has diminished, it is not clear if the coral situation has improved. The effects of global warming may have compensated, despite the winds returning to normal. ”

Over the past two years, USP’s Rocha-Campos also called for international cooperation to carry out his research. He is counting on the backup from an Argentine base and benefitting from the cooperation with the Argentine Antarctic Institute. “We’ve already collected rock samples on King George Island, not far from the Brazilian station, on other occasions. For the research to move forward, we need to visit other places,” says the professor. A group of researchers under his lead has recently identified a glacial structure essential to clarify the paleoclimatic history of Antarctica during the Miocene (about 15 million years ago). The structure, called a glacial clasts pavement , proves that there has been a period of expansion of the West Antarctic ice cap. Rocha-Campos and other Brazilian researchers are in favor of obtaining funds so that Brazil can participate in the program Antarctic Drilling (ANDRILL), an international consortium that has been carrying out geological surveys in the Antarctic continental coast. “If we manage to raise funds to participate, we will enter the mainstream of geological research in Antarctica,” he says.

Situated in the hottest part of the Antarctic continent, on King George Island, the Comandante Ferraz station guaranteed easy access for the two Brazilian ships. Several other countries have set up base in the region for a reason. It is in an open bay with broad beaches, which favors logistics and reduces costs. At the same time, it was able to support restricted sets of research studies, such as, for example, those in the field of marine biology, which were affected by most by the fire. Comprising over 60 interconnected modules, it grew over time into a village on the coast. In the winter, only a smaller number of researchers remained at the base. During the cold season, access was not possible by ship, as these vessels only go to the continent between October and April, so the base was visited by the airplanes of the Brazilian Air Force (FAB). “The location is also ideal due to its proximity to two lakes – sources of fresh water,” says Rosalinda Montone from USP, who has been to Antarctica 17 times.

The inauguration of the Brazilian Station in 1984: researchers travelled at the Navy’s invitation

FABIO MELO FONTESThe inauguration of the Brazilian Station in 1984: researchers travelled at the Navy’s invitationFABIO MELO FONTES

The tragedy interrupted 40% of Brazilian research in Antarctica – a sign that the country’s scientific presence on the continent was not exclusively dependent on the logistics structure managed by the Navy. On the one hand, data collection modules located between 300 meters and one kilometer from the burnt base were spared. On the other, there has been a steady increase in the research carried out off the base. Jefferson Cardia Simões’ expedition to the geographic South Pole in late 2004, where he collected ice testimonies (cylinders), depended on a logistics schedule outside of what the Navy offered – involving flights by Chilean airplanes and renting a polar tractor together with other researchers. In January, a team led by Heitor Evangelista from the State University of Rio de Janeiro (UERJ) and Jefferson Simões installed Cristofera I – the first Brazilian scientific module obtaining weather data inside the Antarctic continent, located 2.5 thousand kilometers to the south of the station.

The 1982 expedition
The history of Brazilian research funding in Antarctica has several phases. In 1975, Brazil signed the Antarctic Treaty, which dedicated the continent to peaceful activities, in particular scientific research. The country conducted its first expedition in 1982. At the advent of Proantar in 1984 and the inauguration of the Comandante Ferraz station, it was the Navy itself who called for researchers to work in the region through the Inter-ministerial Commission for Sea Resources (CIRM). “The research program was ordered by CIRM, which invited selected institutions and sought to lead research in certain areas,” says Ronald Buss de Souza. It is was back then that institutions such as Inpe and the Oceanographic and Earth Sciences Institutes at USP were incorporated into the research effort. USP’s oceanographic ship, Captain W. Besnard, made ​​six trips to Antarctica in the 1980s aiding the researchers along with the Navy’s Baron de Tefé.

Proantar’s second phase began in 1991when the Navy decided to withdraw from research and only take on the logistics of trips to the base. CNPq took over the research. “There was already a critical mass to compete in announcements and CNPq began evaluating projects according to scientific productivity,” said Souza. It was not an easy time. “The bride was beautiful but it came without a dowry,” says Professor Rocha-Campos. CNPq’s resources were limited so that the Ministry of Environment’s involvement in Proantar brought relief in a third phase of Antarctic research funding. As determined in a protocol signed by Brazil, the research started to be monitored to reduce its environmental impact.

In the most recent, fourth stage, CNPq released bids to select projects and two National Institutes of Science and Technology were created. The latter work as virtual networks of excellence and are maintained by CNPq and by state foundations that support research. New research groups, mainly from Rio Grande do Sul, were formed over time. “Unlike what happened in the 1980s, when scientists made ​​concessions in their research to include Antarctica, we now have a generation of scientists dedicated to research on the continent. This critical mass pushed for more resources and opportunity to conduct their studies,” says Jefferson Simões.

The station in flames: two casualties and reconstruction forecast to be ready in 2016

MARIA ROSA PEDREIRO/UFPRThe station in flames: two casualties and reconstruction forecast to be ready in 2016MARIA ROSA PEDREIRO/UFPR

The United States, Britain, Japan and Germany invest the most in research about the Antarctic. “They are the first line of research with stations in different parts of Antarctica and icebreakers capable of reaching them,” says Jefferson Simões. China and India rank second, as they have multiplied their investments in the region recently, in addition to France, Norway and Russia. Brazil, with its increase in research groups in recent years, would be in the third platoon, with ambitions to ascend to the second. “We are better off than our neighbors in South America, Argentina and Chile, whose presence on the continent is older and more visible,” says Professor Rocha-Campos.

According to Ronald Buss de Souza from INPE, Brazil’s time to create an Antarctic research institute, similar to that of several other countries with bases in the region, has passed. He also believes that the Navy leadership is Proantar’s Achilles heel. “Developed countries have established private Antarctic research institutes that manage the stations and research vessels. In Brazil and other countries that have territorial interests in Antarctica, such as Chile and Argentina, the military runs the bases,” he says. “The station chief has always been a Brazilian naval officer. A researcher working in Antarctica has to ask for permission to work outside the station. If it is not granted, nothing happens. The officer will only refuse if there is a reason but he can invent obstacles to avoid accompanying the researcher on an unpleasant task,” he explains. He complains that Brazil has not yet understood Antarctica’s importance. “Our research focuses on the influence of the Amazon Region on climate, but 60% of our territory is more susceptible to the influence of Antarctica,” he says.

In the short term, the challenge is to ensure that the research studies are maintained while a new station is built. One way of supporting the research is to keep a Brazilian ship docked near the station during the summer. “The rent of a third ship is also being considered,” says Rosalinda Montone. Another idea is to look for collaborations that might allow the use of other countries’ stations. An international tender will define the form of the new station. It will most likely start with the design of the Spanish Juan Carlos station, which has no adjacent modules, which keeps fire from spreading. Navy commander Julio Soares de Moura Neto said that the project will take into account the suggestions of the researchers. “Research is the reason why we’re on Antarctica. The participation of researchers is extremely welcome,” said Moura Neto, according to Agência Brasil.