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Brazilian Paleontologists Face 43 Days Camping in Freezing Temperatures and Return with Three Tons of Fossils from Antarctica

03/30/2016 - 10h25



It was past 3:00 am on March 5, 2016, when 20 Brazilian researchers entered the Cabo de Hornos hotel in Punta Arenas, Chile. It was the end of a week waiting for the flight on the Brazilian Air Force's Hércules C-130 which finally took them from Antarctica.

They managed to get a ride on the C-130 airplanes from Chile and Uruguay to leave the Chilean station of Eduardo Frei. They had taken off at 11:00 pm of the previous day.

Fifty-nine other participants of the 34th Antarctica Operation (Operantar) stayed on the Brazilian Navy's ships which had taken them to the Eduardo Frei station from the Comandante Ferraz Antarctica station – the Brazilian base located 60 kilometers away.

In this Operantar, the Navy supported 24 scientific projects, with some 300 researches involved.

Among those who took the ride was Alexander Kellner, the coordinator of the Paleoantar project. Kellner is a dinosaur hunter of the Rio de Janeiro National Museum and the sun was already shining when he finally went to sleep on a real bed – and not in a sleeping bag or a ship's truckle bed – for the first time in two months.

"Antarctica is always like that. One needs patience and calmness to deal with the delays," says Kellner. "It is a privilege and a burden."

Kellner faces the challenges of researching in Antarctica because it is an opportunity to look for remains of vertebrates in the austral continent which was once connected to South America and covered with forests more than 70 million years ago.

Before the week he spent waiting, Kellner and 14 other companions had spent 43 days camping on the island of James Ross, located further south, on the other side of the Antarctic peninsula.

Near the Brazilian station, in the Almirantado bay on Rei Jorge island, there are no sedimentary rocks, the only ones where fossils can be found. That is why the group decided to study James Ross, where the British and Argentineans have already collected many bones.

It was the second time Kellner visited the island to search for remains along with his former student Douglas Riff, now a professor at the Federal University of Uberlândia. They had stayed there for 37 days in the summer of 2006/2007, and they found bones of the oldest plesiosaur (a sea reptile) in Antarctica.

The results collected during the second expedition also were good. The team is now returning to Brazil with three tons of rocks.

Kellner speaks of "wonderful, fantastic discoveries," but does not reveal all the secrets: "We have found some very rare things but also 'common' stuff too, like invertebrates."

He does not give much information: "Some vertebrate material. Very cool stuff."

The 15 people who camped for 43 days on the island of James Ross comprised two research teams: the group of Kellner and Riff, along with four more scientists and two mountain climbers in charge of security, and that of Carlos Schaefer, of the Federal University of Viçosa (MG), with five researchers and one mountain climber.

Schaefer has been researching in Antarctica for 15 years, during which he mapped an area the size of the Brazilian state of Sergipe. He is a geologist and investigates the characteristics of the frozen soil (permafrost). He managed to collect samples for the first time on the island of James Ross.

The option to set up only one campsite was made to optimize the set up logistics from the Ary Rongel ship of the Brazilian Navy as well as for security management reasons.

"But it is difficult to conciliate the activity planning for two groups with very different scientific programs," says Schaefer. "In my case, we didn't depend on luck [to find fossils]. We only had to carry out everything in the shortest time possible in order to avoid surprises."

There were plenty of surprises, but all of them were good. With the predominantly sunny weather at the campsite on the Santa Marta inlet in January, his group managed to finish their work in 22 days.

However, it was necessary to wait for three weeks for the rescue boat to come. In some days, there were storms and wind gusts of up to 120 kilometers per hour.

"Unpredictability and imponderable situations are the general rule in the icy continent," says Schaefer, resigned. "I have become used to it."

Schaefer has high praises for the officials and garrison of the Ary Rongel and Almirante Maximiano ships, "thoroughly committed to making a complex and risky operation feasible."

Much less complex and risky seemed the program organized by the Brazilian Navy for the press coverage of the launching of the cornerstone of the new Comandante Ferraz Antartic Station (EACF) to be built at the same place of the previous facility which was destroyed by fire in 2012, killing two military men.

The schedule included a flight on February 28 to the Chilean base of Eduardo Frei on a Brazilian Air Force C-130 airplane. Later, the group would be taken to EACF on the island of Rei Jorge aboard the Almirante Maximiano polar ship.

On February 29, there would be speeches and the unveiling of a plaque by Defense Minister Aldo Rebelo (PC do B) and Celso Pansera (PMDB), the minister of Science, Technology and Innovation. After two or three nights, the journalists would return to Punta Arenas on March 1 or 2, depending on the weather.

Everything that could go wrong actually did. There were all kinds of obstacles, ranging from the lack of decision height for the Air Force airplane to land at Eduardo Frei to a malfunctioning engine in the airplane.

The first flight, on February 28, turned around and returned only 20 minutes before it could reach Eduardo Frei. The second flight, on March 2, even flew over the Chilean facility, circulating it several times only to return to Punta Arenas. On the way back, one of the airplane's four engines stopped working.

There were three of the first four EACF commanders on the airplane: Edison Martins, Antônio José Teixeira and José Henrique Elkfury – the latter was the first person to lead a group who spent the entire winter in Antarctica."

The plan was to pay them homage at the Brazilian provisory station. They will now have to wait for the new station to be inaugurated, perhaps in 2018.

Rebelo and Pansera had already returned to Brazil on March 1 without setting foot on Antarctica. The cornerstone, "a black plaque with golden letters," was launched at the headquarters of the Chilean Antarctic Institute (Inach), next to the Cabo de Hornos hotel.

The Folha news team arrived in the icy territory of Antarctica only four days after the second unsuccessful landing, on March 6.

We waited for eight days in Punta Arenas and after three flights and a total of 14 hours on the Brazilian Air Force's Hércules, we finally reached Antarctica. There was very little snow around the Eduardo Frei base, only some grey gravel.

I got off the airplane at 5:10 pm accompanied by documentarians Júlia Martins, Pedro Urano and Danilo Carvalho. A vehicle took us to the beach.

The plan was to get on the Maximiano ship and sail to the Brazilian station in the Keller peninsula, but the weather soon played its tricks again. The ship had to wait for an opportunity to cross the Drake passage between Antarctica and South America, one of the most dangerous and turbulent seas in the world.

If we leaft at that moment, Uncle Max - as we nicknamed the ship - would face waves of 4 to 6 meters at most. If we didn't, the waves could reach 8 meters. The Navy decided to leave immediately. We were comforted by the fact that there were researches working in the labs on the ship.

The total time we stayed in Antarctica was two hours.

We boarded Max only to find new disappointment: dozens of researchers had left the ship to take the flight that would finally leave from Eduardo Frei to Punta Arenas. But Antonio Batista Pereira, accompanied by two students, and Douglas Riff were on the ship.

On the first two days, "Mr. Drake," as sailors call it, lived up to his tyrannical fame. Its waves made everybody on the ship spend most of the time lying.

The recommendation was not to miss any of the four daily meals so that we could keep something in our stomachs – and also to put a Vonau Flash pill under our tongues every eight hours.

With very small amounts of food and forced sleep, it was possible to keep our intestines in good conditions. At 11:00 pm, after dinner, I talked to Riff who seemed not be disturbed by the ship's constant swaying.

Riff told me that the archipelago of James Ross is comprised of sedimentary rocks deposited in the region between 40 and 90 million years ago – they were brought to the surface by volcanic activity 5 million years ago. Since the 1960s, due to the work of British geologists, scientists have known that there are many fossils in the area.

Kellner and Riff's group, helped by the geologists in Schaefer's group in the three previous weeks, found many animal teeth and bones, such as those of sharks and other fish and sea reptiles. All fossils found were severely fragmented and became crumbs under the pressure of the enormous moving glaciers.

Riff, however, has great expectations concerning a whole piece: the hand bone of a terrestrial vertebrate. He believes that it belongs to a dinosaur of the group of the ornithopods ("bird feet") but the information still depends on confirmation.

"In the field, fossils tell us a story, but they can go another way after laboratory analyses," he says.

The fossil is the type of discovery which has the potential to make us forget the temperature below 12ºC negative, the puncture in the quadricycle without a spare tire, the malfunctioning radios and the biggest enemy: the constant wind.

It was not this time that Edison Martins, 68, a retired fleet admiral, managed to return to the place where he helped to choose the site for the Brazilian base in Antarctica. After two unsuccessful landings, he returned to Brazil frustrated.

Martins said that the decision to create an Antarctic Program came from Admiral Maximiano da Fonseca, the Brazilian Navy minister between 1979 and 1984. The biggest and most modern polar ship in Brazil today was named after him.

The first vessel was bought in 1982. It was used to assemble Operantar 1, which had the objective to identify a place to build the Brazilian station - a requirement for Brazil to become a member of the Antarctic Treaty (1959).

Only in February 1984 was the site finally chosen: the Keller peninsula at the back of the Almirantado bay, where there are lagoons formed by melted glaciers with drinking water and beaches with inclinations that help disembarkation. The station was built and expanded until it was destroyed by fire in 2012.

Today there are emergency Antarctic modules working in the area. It was decided that the new EACF, a project designed by the architecture office Estúdio 41 in Curitiba, will be built in the same place at the cost of US$ 100 million. The construction will be carried out by Chinese company Ceiec.

The choice is not unanimous in the scientific field. Researchers, such as paleontologist Kellner, would prefer to work further south.

"If Brazil intends to have a bigger participation in the scenario of scientific research in Antarctica, we must be bolder, which means exploring new places," says Kellner. "We must expand our horizons instead of just staying in a little bay."

The Brazilian Ministry of Science, Technology and Innovation believes that the activities in the 24 projects chosen after a call for proposals carried out at this Operantar will bring groundbreaking results and already include activities further south with the support of ships.

The Brazilian Navy justified the choice to build the base in the same place to avoid environmental impact in other parts of Antarctica.

If the resources for the station are guaranteed, the same does not seem to be the case for those going to Antarctica to research. In 2015, expenditure amounted to R$ 526,821 - only 36.63% of the total authorized by the Brazilian Federal Government's Budget.

For 2016, the forecast of R$ 1,386,815 to be spent includes a 3.58% cut in comparison with the amount in the previous budget.

Scientists are even more worried about the logistic support to the research. Only 7.37% of the R$ 63 million funding was spent in the Antarctic mission in 2015. And, in 2016, 90.2% of the resources haven't been authorized yet, reducing the total to R$ 6,171,019.

"We are not stopping any of the projects this year," says the Minster of Science, Technology and Innovation, Celso Pansera. "Of course we are holding some resources back, but we are going to make adjustments throughout the year."

Without resistance, perseverance and a lot of calming, it is clear that research cannot be done in Antarctica. In fact, nothing can be done at all.

Journalist MARCELO LEITE traveled from Punta Arenas to the Chilean base of Eduardo Frei at the invitation of Brazil's Ministry of Defense.

Translated by THOMAS MUELLO

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