Brazil’s new state-of-the-art base in Antarctica

. Jan 14, 2020
antarctica base brazil Brazil's Comandante FerrazAntarctic base. Photo: Brazilian Navy

From KING GEORGE ISLAND — The sleek architecture and hotel-like accommodations are reminiscent of a luxury ski lodge, but this is Brazil’s USD 100 million, state-of-the-art, brand-new research base in Antarctica. The country planned to reopen its facilities at the South Pole this afternoon, eight years after a devastating fire killed two people and destroyed 70 percent of the old facilities, built back in 1984. 

The official inauguration of the base was delayed until tomorrow, due to bad weather. Vice President Hamilton Mourão, Science and Technology Minister Marcos Pontes, and Defense Minister Fernando Azevedo e Silva are lodging in the nearby Chilean town of Punta Arenas, awaiting an opportunity to fly over to Antarctica.

</p> <figure class="wp-block-image"><img loading="lazy" width="1024" height="576" src="" alt="architecture brazilian antarctica base" class="wp-image-30207" srcset=" 1024w, 300w, 768w, 610w, 1600w" sizes="(max-width: 1024px) 100vw, 1024px" /><figcaption>Photo: Brazilian Navy</figcaption></figure> <p>The impressive structure stands at the site of the previous base, at the Keller Peninsula of King George Island. At 4,500 square kilometers, it is twice the size of the prior facilities; it can house 64 people at any one time and has 17 labs to support 18 ongoing studies in fields such as oceanography, glaciology, meteorology, and microbiology.&nbsp;</p> <p>It was designed to support winds of up to 200 kilometers per hour, temperatures as low as -30 degrees Celsius, and constant seismic activity. The main concern of the architects was safety—and every single room is equipped with fire doors.</p> <p>In comparison to some of Brazil&#8217;s apparently never-ending public works, eight years to build such a modern base in the world&#8217;s most inhospitable continent can be seen as reasonably efficient. The government faced two problems that bottlenecked the process: finding the ideal company to award the construction contract and the merciless climate in Antarctica.</p> <p>The contract was won by <a href="">Chinese company CEIEC</a> in August 2015, but works only began one year later—as no progress can be made during the Antarctic winter. Moreover, the entire structure was built in China and transported on ships to King George Island—through the treacherous Drake Passage, where over 800 ships have sunk. &#8220;We can generate up to 20 percent of our energy supply from wind and solar power,&#8221; Lieutenant Commander Newton Fagundes, one of the engineers responsible for the project, told <strong>The Brazilian Report</strong>.</p> <figure class="wp-block-image"><img loading="lazy" width="1024" height="768" src="" alt="structure china brazilian antarctica" class="wp-image-30206" srcset=" 1024w, 300w, 768w, 610w, 1600w" sizes="(max-width: 1024px) 100vw, 1024px" /><figcaption>Chinese company CEIEC built the base&#8217;s structure. Photo: Brazilian Navy</figcaption></figure> <h2>Funding remains a question mark</h2> <p>The new Comandante Ferraz Base in Antarctica will be inaugurated as Brazil faces a historical process of cuts to research funding. In the Science and Technology Ministry, the budget to support researchers has been scraped down to the bone, with a 42-percent reduction in 2019.&nbsp;</p> <p>Since signing up to the Antarctica Treaty in 1975, Brazil risks losing, for the first time, the pole position in South Pole research among Latin American nations. &#8220;It took us 15 years to become Latin America&#8217;s leaders in Antarctic research. If we stop our investments—a minimum of BRL 4 to 5 million per year—we will lose that position,&#8221; said Jefferson Simões, Vice President of the Scientific Committee on Antarctic Research, to <strong>The Brazilian Report</strong>.</p> <hr class="wp-block-separator"/> <div id="buzzsprout-player-2497525"></div> <script src=";player=small" type="text/javascript" charset="utf-8"></script> <hr class="wp-block-separator"/> <p>In 2018, the Brazilian Antarctic Program had the biggest annual invitation for bids in its history: BRL 18 million. But the government has made no commitments past 2022.</p> <p>A lack of money could have political consequences for Brazil, as the country could lose its voting rights in deliberations concerning the exploration of the continent—as the treaty demands &#8220;substantial scientific research activity&#8221; in order to have a say.</p> <p>Having a base in Antarctica allows Brazilian scientists to perform research in extreme conditions as a way to improve understanding about Brazil&#8217;s own climate—many of the winds and clouds that hit the country originate in Antarctica. The base is also important from a geopolitical standpoint, placing Brazil on the continent with the biggest freshwater reserves on the planet, and which doesn&#8217;t have an &#8220;owner&#8221; or governing body in charge. Another 19 countries also have bases in Antarctica.</p> <figure class="wp-block-image"><a href=",-46.76272252,-9390.37715482a,11742269.23806667d,35y,338.77534752h,0t,0r/data=CmYaZBJeCiUweGJjNzM4ZTY0MDkxYTRiOTE6MHg5NmJkMWQ3NGY3ZWY3NGFjGcaUWc7vCk_AIfQB3IcXMk3AKiNDb21hbmRhbnRlIEZlcnJheiBBbnRhcmN0aWMgU3RhdGlvbhgBIAE"><img loading="lazy" width="1024" height="670" src="" alt="antarctica" class="wp-image-30220" srcset=" 1024w, 300w, 768w, 610w, 2000w" sizes="(max-width: 1024px) 100vw, 1024px" /></a><figcaption>Click to access Google Earth</figcaption></figure> <h2>Brazil&#8217;s history in Antarctica</h2> <p>Until the 1950s, Brazil showed little, if any, scientific and political interest in Antarctica, with only a few sporadic ventures. In 1882, the country sent a corvette warship on a sub-Antarctic expedition in Chile&#8217;s port city of Punta Arenas. Other than that, Brazil limited itself to supporting explorers leaving from Rio de Janeiro.</p> <p>In 1958, physician and journalist Durval Rosa Borges became the first Brazilian in the South Pole—after an invitation from the U.S. government. At the time, the country had neither adequate ships nor training for exploring Antarctica. It was then that the interest of the Brazilian government was awakened. The Superior School of War published papers advising the country not to recognize claims by other nations, and even to claim part of the continent for itself based on a theory drafted by professors of the Brazilian Institute of Geography and Statistics.</p> <p>According to the theory, Antarctica should be divided by the extreme meridians of the territories of the countries of the Southern Hemisphere, meaning Brazil would be entitled to a part of the Antarctic land. Even Brazil&#8217;s accession to the Antarctic Treaty in 1975 did not end the discourse of more radical territorialists, who continued to defend a claim on the continent throughout the 1970s.&nbsp;</p> <p>In the 1980s, Brazil launched its Antarctic Program, with the first fully-Brazilian expedition happening taking place in 1982–1983, aiming at scouting the best place to set up a base. The program was nearly halted in the 1990s and early 2000s, but emerged as a key point in Brazil&#8217;s <a href="">strategy</a> of diplomatic impetus under former President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva. Between 2008 and 2017, the country <a href="">spent over BRL 500 million on research</a>.</p> <p>Now, that funding is hanging by a thread.

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Iara Lemos

Iara Lemos is an award-winning journalist, and editor-in-chief at Destak newspaper.

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