Chile sends its largest-ever scientific expedition to Antarctica

The experts from diverse Chilean expeditions will travel to the Antarctic Peninsula to research the effects of climate change and to document its biodiversity.

Scientific expedition

One of the most characteristic things about Chilean geography is that it is marked by extremes. In the north there is the Atacama Desert, in the far south Tierra del Fuego and just opposite Cape Horn is the Chilean Antarctic Territory, where the second stage of the 46th Scientific Antarctic Expedition (ECA), the largest Chilean scientific project undertaken on the white continent, was launched.

A total of 72 scientists will travel to the Chilean zone in the white continent in three different stages, an effort that the Instituto Antártico Chileno (Inach), a technical organization that is part of the Chilean Foreign Ministry, organizes every year.

Paulina Julio, deputy national director of the institution, highlighted that, “in addition, women researchers will have a significant and unprecedented presence, accounting for 23% of the scientists who will participate on this ECA.”

Chile in Antarctica

Antarctica is considered humanity’s most important natural reserve, concentrating 90% of the world’s fresh water. While the Antarctic Treaty – which 47 countries signed in 1959 – suspends all territorial claims over the white continent, it does allow it to be explored for peaceful purposes.

Chile has a civilian settlement in Antarctica (Villa Las Estrellas), four permanent bases, a meteorological center (Eduardo Frei Montalva) that is of major importance, research centers and numerous shelters used during the summer. Villa Las Estrellas is one of the only two stable civilian settlements in Antarctica, along with Argentina’s Esperanza base.

The village has around 80 inhabitants in the winter and over 150 in the summer, in addition to a hospital, a school, a bank and a church. It is currently the departure point for scientific
expeditions and has also become a tourist attraction for people visiting the continent. The companies Victory Adventure Expeditions and Aerolíneas DAP offer trips to Villa las Estrellas.

Climate change and biodiversity

Since it is the most unexplored continent, Chilean scientists have been undertaking diverse types of research there for over 40 years. During this stage 43 experts from Chilean institutions will participate. The group of scientists will undertake 15 projects in the field, including sample-taking and laboratory activities, five of which have received state support from the National Fund for Scientific and Technological Development (Fondecyt).

On this occasion, one of the issues that the ECA will cover is centered on the effects of climate change on the Antarctic continent, as numerous publications have noted that the Antarctic Peninsula, which is part of the Chilean Antarctic Territory, is one of the few places where the temperature has increase six times more than the global average, which has had diverse effects.

Anja Wendt, a researcher from the Centro de Estudios Científicos (CECS) who is leading these initiatives, explains that “the main goal of this research Project is to find answers to the recent climate changes in glaciers on the Antarctic Peninsula, which generally end up becoming platforms of floating ice.” “These platforms have been substantially reduced over the last few decades,” the expert says.

Efforts will also be made to identify the abundance and diversity of Antarctic organisms. The scientists and their equipment will be transported with the assistance of the Magallanes regional airline DAP, the Chilean Air Force (FACH) and the Navy, with three of its ships specially outfitted for navigating among the Antarctic ice.

In addition to the CECS, other Chilean institutions that will engage in research on the expedition are Universidad de ChilePontificia Universidad Católica, la Universidad AustralUniversidad de ConcepciónUniversidad de MagallanesUniversidad Católica de Valparaísoand Universidad Adolfo Ibáñez, in addition to the Fundación Centro de Estudios del Cuaternario de Fuego-Patagonia y Antártica (CEQUA)and the Fundación Biociencia.

The first stage of the current ECA began in October 2009. Seven projects were undertaken in November and December with participation by 17 researchers. Meanwhile, the third stage will take place in February and March 2010 and contemplates 20 researchers engaged in scientific work on six projects.