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The New Antarctic Explorers

Photographer: Felipe Trueba

 

In a new age of exploration in Antarctica, Chile's Armed Forces are playing a vital role in making it possible for scientists to carry out their research on the world's southernmost continent.

 

Antarctica is vast, almost twice the size of Australia, and only a select number of tourists, scientists and soldiers ever get to set foot on this continent, much of which lies under two kilometers (1.2 miles) of ice. While it does not have any indigenous inhabitants, its population varies between 1,000 people in winter and 5,000 in summer. Most are researchers and station personnel spread across the 66 bases scattered along its coasts.

 

The golden days of Antarctic exploration of the past century saw the likes of Norway's Roald Amundsen become the first man to venture to the South Pole and Briton Robert Falcon Scott lead the expedition that discovered the Polar Plateau. But the expeditions of today see teams of scientists and soldiers embark on new adventures on the White Continent with more technology at their disposal than ever before.

 

The Chilean Antarctic Institute (INACH) coordinates scientific activities in the Chilean Antarctic Territory and relies heavily on the South American country’s military for their organization. Along with the three branches of the Armed Forces of Chile, INACH operates a polar station below the Ellsworth Mountains called the Union Glacier Camp. The station opens at the beginning of austral summer and remains operational for a month. The latest expedition, which wrapped up in mid-December, saw a group of eight researchers venturing to the camp to work on four projects, along with 34 men and women from the three branches of the armed forces.

 

Chile's armed forces, the Army, Navy and Air Force, played a key role in enabling the scientists to carry out their work, which involved participating in land and air field trips in order to collect data, looking for basic forms of life, as well as taking samples of snow, ice and sediment. Navy personnel took care of the camp logistics, administering the food supply and controlling the cargo that came in or had to be sent back to the southern Chilean city of Punta Arenas. The Navy sent the two cooks who fed the expedition members and two medics. The Air Force organized transport to the remote camp, located just over 1,000 kilometers from the South Pole. Two Lockheed C-130 Hercules airplanes flew cargo and personnel across a six-hour-long flight path that covers a 3,000 km distance. Army soldiers meanwhile coordinated all the scientific activities with the scientists on the ground. The Army's ground crew was made up of a team of six explorers who assisted the academics with their tasks, becoming their shadows as they guided them on the cold terrain, helping them to take samples and ensuring their safety. The explorers also carried out reconnaissance trips to the sites that the researchers would be visiting, to make sure routes were safe and monitor the weather conditions.

 

As with all expeditions, all personnel had to follow strict protocol in order to keep the environmental impact to a minimum, according to INACH. This meant leaving no waste behind and planning and carrying out all activities in such a way that limited adverse effects on Antarctica’s environment and ecosystem. Back at the camp after all their duties were done for the day, members of the armed forces and the scientists would kick back and relax, some playing football in the evening under a never-setting sun.