Chile and Brazil take glaciology project to heart of Antarctica

Ice samples extracted near the pole will help scientists learn about
previous climate changes, enabling them to better predict the planet’s
changing weather patterns.

A hundred years ago – specifically, December 14, 1911 – Norwegian Roald Amundsen reached the South Pole, becoming the first known human to set foot on one of the few untamed places in the world.

Now a Chilean-Brazilian mission is also set on reaching the South Pole, but this time, the context is different: Chile is leading its XLVIII Scientific Expedition to Antarctica (ECA: Expedición Científica Antártica), organized by the Chilean Antarctic Institute (Inach: Instituto Antártico Chileno). The joint team will extract an ice core sample just 416 miles (670 km) from 0º latitude.

The polar season began on December 5, with a handful of scientists arriving to work at the Profesor Julio Escudero Base and laboratories run by Inach. In total, Chile will be working on 24 projects on the great white continent, three of which include international cooperation – with Brazil, Portugal, and the Austria-based International Atomic Energy Agency.

Inach will also be offering logistical support to scientists from Korea, the United States, Poland, Japan and Spain, according to the Projects Department head, Javier Arata. The season ends on March 29, 2012, and will mean a total of US$ 1.7 million in investments.

2,000 years of climate history

For the last four years, Chile and Brazil have been cooperating on a climate study in Patagonia and Antarctica, searching for teleconnections: large-scale relations between climate anomalies over thousands of kilometers. Inach glaciologist Ricardo Jaña says that the current mission is one of the most important research investigations he has seen.

“An ice core sample has never been taken from this sector, which is what makes it so important,” Jaña said. The core sample will come from a depth of 492 ft (150 m) below the surface of the ice.

The team, led by Jefferson Simões from the Universidad Federal de Río Grande do Sul, includes 15 Brazilians and two Chileans, who will spend 35 days on the Union glacier, located in the Heritage range in the Ellsworth mountains. Their only link to the outside will be a satellite telephone.

The logistics of an expedition of this scale are extremely complicated, Jaña said, with temperatures expected to drop to -31ºF (-35º C). And once the team has extracted the ice core, the sample needs to be kept below freezing temperatures while it’s shipped to laboratories in Chile and around the world.