Antarctica - Science on Another Planet

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Antarctica - Science on Another Planet

Photographer: Felipe Trueba


Every year the Chilean Antarctic Institute (INACH) organizes an Antarctic Scientific Expedition (ECA) to the White Continent – the 56th campaign included 49 projects carrying out fieldwork in the White Continent.

Scientists began arriving in July 2019 with the last group closing bases by late March 2020. Running for eight months, this was the longest campaign ever organized by the Institute, despite serious external setbacks: the country faced months of social turmoil and the devasting crash of a logistical support plane provided by the Chilean military that killed all 38 people on board. A further complication was the outbreak of Covid-19 recently.

A total of 505 people took part in the 56th ECA, ranging from logistical support specialists to scientists. The INACH also supported the Antarctic programs of Germany, Brazil, Italy, and the United States among others. The nature of investigations varied from climate change in the region to biotechnology, to the presence of human footprints and analysis of the Antarctic ecosystem.

King George Island in the South Shetlands is the hub for expeditions arriving from South America. INACH´s main scientific station, Professor Julio Escudero, is located here, as well as bases for Russia, China, Uruguay, South Korea, and Poland. All of them profit from the local airport – a small landing strip managed by Chile.

Elias Barticevic, INACH member and operating chief of Escudero base, sums up this year’s expedition: “A very demanding campaign, with a high number of activities and complex logistics to support the scientific work. We accomplished our duties. Escudero has served as the entry gate for scientific programs of various countries operating in this area.”

Four projects were taking place in this Chilean base during the final weeks of this year´s ECA.

For her ongoing research Chilean ecophysiologist, Angelica Casanova studied how organisms adapt to their environment. She examined the effects of climate and nutrients on the physiological processes in plants. For this, she compared lichenized fungi growing in the Antarctic and Atacama deserts, both scarce water areas. Using devices known as open-top chambers (OTC) that alter the ambient temperature inside, she investigates how Antarctic lichen species can adapt to long-term passive warming and which lichen traits suffer more under the global warming scenario.

The team of Mauricio Landaeta, Manuel Castillo and Javier Vera-Duarte studied the coupling of the early life of Antarctic fish to the changing environment produced by a warming ocean. Conditioned by low temperatures and the seasonality of their pelagic food, the Antarctic fish have developed different survival skills. Species like the spiny plunderfish Harpagifer antarcticus hatch small eggs that grow rapidly afterward. This technique allows the fish to adapt better to the fast-changing surroundings characterized by an altered trophic chain and warmer water temperatures.

A faster pace of glacial melting is pouring more freshwater into the sea. The resulting decrease in salinity, combined with higher temperatures, is producing changes in the composition of the phytoplankton – less plant-like diatoms and more cryptomonads algae. The first is favored by krill, the last by salpa - a planktic invertebrate animal. Accordingly, increased salpa numbers could provide indirect evidence of changes in the climate. And something else to take into account: krill plays a critical role in the food chain of whales, seals, and penguins. If the krill retreats to colder seas, they will likely follow, altering the fragile ecosystem of Antarctica.

Chilean researchers Lisette Zenteno, Alonso Ferrer, and Fernanda Vargas also studied the Harpagifer antarcticus, along with other local fish specimens, concerning pollution. The increased presence of humans in the Continent has brought contaminants to these animals that live under very specific conditions. How is the human factor affecting individual and entire populations of endemic fish species? Zenteno´s project extends to studying parasites within the fish to help establish the presence and level of heavy metals.

Chilean glaciologist Gino Casassa looked at melting glaciers concerning global warming. The entire Antarctic península has lost significant ice mass due to the greenhouse effect. By complementing satellite information with data obtained on-the-ground, Casassa examined how significant these changes have been and their consequences for the near future. Glaciers on King George Island are reducing clearly in size although some researchers claim this is a natural process, a repeated pattern of temperature fluctuations in the planet’s history.

But there is no doubt that things in Antarctica are changing. The White Continent is not that white anymore. Here, at the northernmost tip of the Chilean Antarctic Territory, it did not snow for the whole month of January. An earth and rocks scenery prevails over a snowy landscape, as the has ice retreated to only the glacial areas. In another unprecedented phenomenon, an Argentinian base logged 18.3C on the thermometer at the beginning of February, the hottest temperature ever recorded at this latitude.

Barticevic reflects on this - “The natural history of Antarctica is closely linked to South America, especially with Chile. We must be a sentinel country for climate change in the Antarctic peninsula. Chilean science should warn us, provide information and propose strategies so that we -as a society- can tackle future developments.”

Despite global warming, scientific fieldwork remains a cold and strenuous job – with long hours in freezing temperatures taking samples or walking over ice fields. Some complement their studies with boat trips at night or spend long hours in the base laboratory. As extravagant as the projects may look, the results of these investigations remain important to our way of life. Antarctic research, in all its types, is fundamental to understanding the impact of climate change.

Even if it looks like science on another planet.