Brazil’s Antarctic new research station

On 15 January 2020, when Brazilian scientists, navy officers, and politicians celebrated the inauguration of the new Comandante Ferraz Antarctic Station in Antarctica, it was like closing a painful chapter in Brazil’s history on the continent.

Almost 8 years earlier, in February 2012, the research facility was destroyed by a fire that claimed the lives of two navy lieutenants, Carlos Alberto Figueiredo and Roberto dos Santos. Located at Admiralty Bay on King George Island, the facility had been operational since 1984 and housed researchers working with PROANTAR (Programa Antártico Brasileiro, the Brazilian Antarctic Program). Caught by surprise by the fire, the country received the news with shock.

The following year, the Brazil Institute of Architects and the Brazilian Navy organized a contest to choose the project for the building that would replace the incinerated station.

The project chosen from more than a hundred proposals from all over the world came from Estúdio 41, a Brazilian architectural office based in Curitiba, the capital of Paraná State. “We put together a multidisciplinary team of about 15 experts in several areas, from wind resistance to geotechnics to thermal insulation, to help us think of how to respond to the harsh environmental conditions in Antarctica. As some of the competing offices had already constructed other research facilities in the continent, we knew winning would be a tough call. So getting it was really exciting,” said architect Emerson Vidigal, a member of Estúdio 41’s team.

The team spent 2 years—from 2013 to 2015—working on the project before China National Electronics Import & Export Corporation, a Chinese construction company, started building the station. “We spent a year on research, looking at similar buildings in Antarctica, and we were lucky to have been able to learn in detail from the Indian research station Bharati. Talking to the engineers of Kaefer, the German construction company that put Bharati together, gave us a deeper understanding of what we were facing. Our partners from the Portuguese engineering office AfaConsult were also crucial in the process, as it was much more an engineering challenge than an architectural one,” Vidigal added.

At 4,500 square meters, the new research facility has almost twice the area of the old station and can house 64 people. The steel structure contains an exterior of polyurethane and an insulating interior of mineral wool. “Between the external and internal layers there is a 60-centimeter buffer for temperature transition with air at 10°C on average, which helps save energy for heating,” said Vidigal.

As the station’s assembly had to be made during the austral summer, when ships can reach Admiralty Bay, logistics to transport construction machinery, workers, and preassembled structures had to be carefully planned. Almost 5 years and roughly $100 million later, the station was ready.

To glaciologist Jefferson Simões, a researcher at the Federal University of Rio Grande do Sul and vice-president of the international Scientific Committee on Antarctic Research, the investment has been worth the time and effort. “Snow and frozen soil would accumulate in front of doorsteps of the old structure, sometimes making it difficult to get in and out. It is very good that the new building is elevated from the soil so the wind can blow snow away underneath,” he said.

Five of Comandante Ferraz’s 17 planned laboratories (those focused on microbiology, molecular biology, chemistry, microscopy, and common use) are ready. These spaces are equipped with instruments that range from DNA readers to ultrafreezers and water purifiers.

Wim Degrave, coordinator of FioAntar (a research project from the Oswaldo Cruz Foundation that looks for Antarctic pathogens that could threaten human, animal, and environmental health), was at the station in late 2019 to assemble the microbiology laboratory. For him, the new station will enable a significant upgrade for research.

“Usually, we had to process soil, water, plant, lichen, and other samples at a research vessel, freeze them, and wait until the ship was back in Rio de Janeiro many months later to start doing research. This isn’t ideal, since some less stable microorganisms such as viruses can deteriorate. Now we’ll be able to isolate and analyze fresh samples at the station. Not only the quality of research will be better, but it will also be possible to work the whole year in a continuum between sampling and analysis, gaining a lot of time,” he explained.

Even research groups who will not work directly at Comandante Ferraz will benefit from it. “This station is a source of pride for Brazil and its science,” said paleontologist Alexander Kellner, coordinator of Brazil’s PaleoAntar project, which conducts paleontological research in Antarctica. Kellner’s team often goes to James Ross Island, southeast of the Antarctic Peninsula, to look for frozen fossils. “An icebreaker would be a great addition to the new station,” he added. “We would be able to do research in the whole continent.”

One aspect on which most researchers agree is that a research station in Antarctica is strategic in geopolitical, as well as scientific, terms. “Only the countries that are doing research down there will have a say in the future of the continent,” Simões emphasized.

“But a lot of it will depend on funding for research projects, which are quite scarce in Brazil now,” he added.

To him, research in the Antarctic is far from being a luxury. Many projects focus on climate change, air pollution, the carbon cycle, and myriad other studies that directly affect life on Earth, as well as policy. For instance, Simões said, “by looking at some ice cores a few years back, we could clearly detect uranium pollution from mining in Australia in recent decades, as well as arsenic due to copper mining in Chile.”

Simões said Brazil’s research planning in Antarctica is being restructured. As all projects were halted during the pandemic, scientists are seeking resources that stretch beyond 2022. “We don’t have a perspective for funding after that yet. The research station cannot become a white elephant. If the government granted us just a million dollars a year, we’d be able to perform miracles,” Simões said.

“A small fraction of the billion-dollar fund the congress is trying to approve to finance political campaigns (the electoral fund) would do a great good for Brazilian research,” Kellner added.