A party of 33 Military officers from the Chilean Air Force, Navy and Army supported the efforts of 15 scientists under the direction of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the Chilean Antarctic Institute (INACH).
The expedition conducted 13 projects at the Union Glacier Joint Scientific Polar Station, including an investigation of the diversity and functionality of macrobiotic life in the area; the state of the glaciers; the effects of climate change on the environment; the optical properties of the cryosphere; and a search for bacteria and photosynthesizing organisms to learn their properties and adaptations.
A ‘milestone’ for science in Chile
During the expedition, the researchers collected specimens that will advance scientific knowledge in Chile.
“Twelve distinct species of lichens, in addition to molds and photosynthetic algae, were collected to be studied by the scientists,” according to Jorge Gallardo, INACH scientific coordinator for the expedition. “We went to search for life at those latitudes. This is a milestone for Chilean science, because it is [our] first scientific expedition in biology.”Though research on such primitive organisms may seem academic, such creatures can have pharmaceutical properties and yield insights that contribute to the creation of new drugs or the understanding of diseases. Such research can also have agricultural applications, often leading to the development of new pesticides or fertilizer compounds. The projects are part of the National Antarctic Science Program (PROCIEN), managed by INACH, and were selected for the expedition from a total of 60 proposals.
The Union Glacier Joint Scientific Polar Station is one of three bases in the world located in the Antarctic Circle; the other two are the U.S. Amundsen-Scott base and China’s Kunlun base.
Logistical support from the Chilean Military
Cooperation and logistical support from the Chilean Armed Forces made the research expedition possible. General Manuel Sainz, commander of the Chilean Air Force’s Fourth Brigade, led the planning for the logistics of the mission in the city of Punta Arenas, a six-hour flight from Union Glacier.
“The only efforts that can bear fruits for us in the future are scientific efforts,” Sainz said.
Transportation and security
Each branch of the Military performed specific tasks to support the mission:
- :: The Chilean Air Force used Hercules aircraft to transport scientists and Troops to and from the base. Airmen also transported supplies for the researchers and Soldiers.
- :: Naval personnel activated the camp and were responsible for its daily operations, including providing food. Naval personnel were also in charge of scheduling the scientific excursions with the help of a meteorologist who helped determine departure times and the duration of each trip.
- :: Army Soldiers provided security for the researchers and scouted the terrain, looking for appropriate locations for the scientists to explore.
The Military also helped scientists navigate the dangerous terrain in the region.
“The greatest difficulties in this place are the crevices, which can be from two meters to 100 meters deep, plus the zero visibility and disorientation that occurs when you are surrounded by snow,” explained Navy Supply Lieutenant Héctor Pezo. “We performed 100 percent of the tasks, just as they had been planned. We supported the scientists and we kept the station in operation for the entire time.”
The scientists, Airmen, Troops, and Sailors prepared for the mission by training for various emergency situations, learning rescue techniques, first aid, and the proper attire to wear for the harsh temperatures, which fluctuated between a high of -5ºC and lows of -15ºC with winds of 5 knots.
In spite of the extreme conditions, it was a “benign environment,” said Dr. Raúl Cordero, a scientist from the University of Santiago de Chile. The stable climate in the area is “like a desert of ice where it never rains and the winds rarely blow.”
This expedition also was conducted to further Chile’s geopolitical interests, in their search to link the military’s interest in protecting sovereignty with the interest in scientific development at the southern extremes of the globe. This way, they fulfilled their mandate under the Antarctic Treaty, signed by Chile in 1959.
The results of this expedition will be released near the end of 2015, once scientists conclude their study of the samples and information collected.
“This has been a giant step for our country and national science,” concluded Gallardo.