Brazilian officials inaugurated the country's new Antarctica scientific base on King George Island Wednesday, nearly eight years after a deadly fire destroyed most of the previous compound.
Speaking under a light snow at the Comandante Ferraz Antarctic Station, Vice President Hamilton Mourão praised the efforts that went into rebuilding the site, which now has 17 laboratories.
"I salute ... the civilians and military who support, in this last frontier of the planet, Brazil's contribution to world peace,” Hamourão said, applauding nearly 40 years of scientific research.
Jefferson Simões, a Brazilian professor of glaciology and polar geography at the Federal University of Rio Grande do Sul, said Brazil's presence in Antarctica is both scientific and geopolitical.
Brazil has been a full member of the 1959 Antarctic Treaty, which oversees the continent, since 1975. All 54 member countries are entitled to a vote, and a veto, on decisions ranging from environmental preservation to international collaboration. But they must keep an active role on the continent, said Simões, who attended the inauguration event as vice president of the international Scientific Committee on Antarctic Research.
The continent, which covers 5.4 million square miles, is rich in drinkable water and possibly oil and gas. But the 1959 treaty's environment protocol bans any exploration for natural resources until 2048.
Up to 64 people will be able to stay at the base at any given time, and Brazilian scientists will be focusing their research on climate change, geology and biotechnology. In the latter, they are looking for marine microorganisms that could lead to innovations in health or agriculture, through the production of new medicines or pesticides.
Brazilian research in Antarctica has not stopped despite the 2012 fire that killed two people and destroyed most of the previous base. The Brazilian ministry of science and technology says it has invested 18 million reais ($4.3 million) in research in the region over the last few years.
The new base is the result of years of research, planning and assembling by Brazilian architecture firm Estudio 41, which won bidding for the project in 2013. Harsh weather during the Antarctic winter meant men could work onsite only four months of the year, between December and March.
“We carried out a large study, looking at local weather conditions, wind strengths, and all the solutions that have been developed over the last 15 years,” said Emerson Vidigal, one of the architects on the project. “We noticed that much of the aesthetics in Antarctic architecture ended up answering these climate requirements."
The base's elevation is one example. The three units rest on pillars a few meters (yards) above ground, allowing strong winds to naturally sweep away any accumulation of snow.
Materials were chosen to address extreme cold, as low as minus 58 degrees F. Thanks to an 8.6 inch polyurethane cover on the outer wall, a two-inch wall on the inside and 23 inches of air in between, temperature in the compound can remain at 70 degrees without too much heating.
The base's units were assembled in China and then shipped to Antarctica by boat over several years, Vidigal said.
Yet, one of the biggest surprises in this seven-year adventure, was on a more personal note, the architect said. Speaking of the two-day crossing of the Drake Passage between Chile's Cape Horn and the southern islands of Antarctica, he recalled a particularly agitated sea, 19 foot waves and many sick passengers.
“We knew some people said it was the worst sea in the world, but we didn’t know how bad it was," Vidigal said.
Harsh conditions are inherent to the frozen region. The inauguration initially was scheduled for Tuesday, but was delayed because the vice president could not reach the base due to bad whether. On Wednesday, weather improved but the event began three hours late as weather conditions prevented helicopters from landing at the base and officials had to arrive by boat.