Antarctica: New season of the Concordia Station kicks off


About 40 science projects and a global ice archive

The new summer campaign has begun at the Italian-French station of Concordia, with the arrival of the first technical crew on the Antarctic plateau, at over 3 thousand meters above sea level, as part of the expedition of the National Research Program in Antarctica (PNRA), funded by the Ministry of University and Research (MUR), managed by ENEA for logistic planning and organization and by the National Research Council (Cnr) for scientific planning and coordination.

During the summer campaign, which ends at the beginning of February 2022, a total of about 90 researchers and technicians will alternate. Currently 54 people are present at Concordia: 13 new winterers (winter over DC18) who will remain until November 2022 to continue their activities during the polar winter, 12 outgoing winterovers of the DC17 expedition who lived in complete isolation for 9 months, 5 researchers, 2 military mechanics and 22 logistic technicians, who will remain at the base until February 2022, together with the residual personnel arriving in the coming days.

Coordinated by expedition leader Rocco Ascione of ENEA, scientific and logistical activities have resumed at full speed. This year they will involve 39 research projects[1] on topics related to astronomy, astrophysics, seismology, atmospheric physics, climatology, biology and medicine, of which 19 pertaining to the PNRA, which runs the base together with the French Polar Institute (IPEV).

Among the most innovative initiaves of this season are snow caves, "frozen caves" created to support the international research projects "Beyond Epica" and "Ice Memory (IM)"[2]. The latter, launched by France and Italy in 2015 and under the auspices of UNESCO, has the dual objective of collecting and storing ice samples taken from glaciers around the world, which could disappear or dramatically shrink due to global warming, thus losing their ability to preserve earth’s climate history.

"We borrowed from the Inuit the architecture of igloos to create protected structures with high stability, with low construction costs and very low environmental impact", said station leader Rocco Ascione. "These snow caves - he continued - will be able to host a global archive of glaciers  at risk of extinction".

The first snow cave was built for experimental purposes during the 2018-2019 summer campaign, in close proximity to Concordia station, under the technical coordination of ENEA and in collaboration with the IPEV. A deep trench was dug and a balloon inflated with air was placed inside it and then covered with powdered snow. As soon as the snow turned to ice and the vault consolidated, the balloon was deflated and a space was created in the underground cavity that did not require additional support structures.

The first tests gave excellent results, so much so that during the 2019-2020 summer campaign a second balloon cave was built, 35 m long with a circular dome of 5 m in diameter. A sort of underground garage for storing equipment and means of transport during the Antarctic winter. The internal temperature, which remains stable around -55 ° C, offers significant advantages compared to exposure to external temperatures of -80 ° C.

Temperature sensors were placed inside the caves and, using a laser scan, a 3D model of both caves was reproduced. The experimental data, combined with simulations already carried out on the computer, will allow to analyse the deformation of the caves, enabling to assess the overall resistance of the building and estimate its lifespan.

“Currently the results of the simulations appear encouraging: in fact the climate characteristics of the Antarctic continent, with extreme temperatures and average rainfall close to zero, make it the ideal site to build long-lasting snow caves”, said Ascione. Although they require regular monitoring, caves are estimated to lose half of their original height only after a century of deformation.

At Little Dome C, 40km from Concordia, the activities related to setting camp and the tests for the drilling and extraction system of the first layers of ice will continue, as part of the European project "Beyond Epica Oldest Ice", coordinated by the Institute of Polar Sciences of the Cnr (Cnr-Isp) with the participation of Ca 'Foscari University of Venice and ENEA. The project, which is the largest study on climate change and will take five years to complete, aims to extract the oldest ice core on Earth drilling the Antarctic ice sheet 3000 metres deep.

Thanks to the study, it will be possible to find a 1.5 million year record of Earth’s climate.

As applies to all personnel present in Antarctica, those arriving in Concordia followed the stringent health protocol developed last year by the Council of Managers of National Antarctic Programs (COMNAP) to prevent the spread of COVID-19.

A vaccination protocol was also implemented at the station for the 12 outgoing winterovers DC17s, arrived in Concordia in November 2020 when a Covid-19 vaccine was not yet available. The long stay in such a remote place weakens, albeit temporarily, the immune system of the staff left in isolation and vaccination will limit the risk of developing complications if infected by Covid-19  during the return trip to Italy.

For more information:

Antarctica: 37th Italian expedition begins in Covid-free mode


[1] In addition to the 19 research projects related to the PNRA, 14 are managed by the IPEV and 6 of biomedicine managed by ESA under the guidance of the Institute of Polar Sciences of the National Research Council (Cnr-Isp) and the Ca 'Foscari University of Venice, together with the Fondation Université Grenoble Alpes (FR) . The project brings together: Paul Scherrer Institut (PSI), CNRS, French National Research Institute for Sustainable Development (IRD-France); French Polar Institute (IPEV) and the National Antarctic Research Program (PNRA).

[2] Italy is lead partner in the project, under the guidance of Institute of Polar Sciences of the National Research Council (Cnr-Isp)and University Ca' Foscari Venezia, together with Fondation Université Grenoble Alpes (FR). The project comprises: Paul Scherrer Institut (PSI)CNRSFrench National Research Institute for Sustainable Development (IRD-France)French Polar Institute (IPEV) and National Antarctic Research Program (PNRA).

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