Scientific expedition “Antarctica 2020−2021” has arrived to the J.G. Mendel Czech Antarctic Station

After more than a month's journey (thanks to strict quarantine measures), this year’s Masaryk University expedition has arrived to the Johann Gregor Mendel Czech Antarctic Station in James Ross Island, located close to the east coast of the Antarctic Peninsula. The polar explorers are scheduled to stay there until the second half of March.

22 Jan 2021

Accompanying Head of the Czech Antarctic Research Program Dan Nývlt and its Manager Pavel Kapler (both from the Faculty of Science MU) are Patricio Utreras (Ambassador of the Republic of Chile to the Czech Republic) and Martin Smolek (Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs), who came to the Václav Havel Airport in Prague to see off the expedition. Photo: Czech Antarctic Research Program Archives.

“Usually twelve to fifteen people, sometimes more, go to our station each year. However, this year, thanks to the covid-19 pandemic, we cut it to an absolute minimum of eight people, comprising five scientists, an expedition doctor and two technicians”, explained Daniel Nývlt, head of the Czech Antarctic Research Programme. The team is led by climatologist and experienced polar explorer Kamil Láska from our Department of Geography. Other crew members include MU scientists Jan Kavan (geomorphology), Pavel Švec (microbiology) and Jana Smolíková (glaciology and geomorphology), supplemented by Zbyněk Engel (glaciology) from Charles University in Prague. Daniela Murínová is the expedition physician. The station’s technical infrastructure will be operated by two technicians, František Vorel and Tomáš Spáčil, from the Czechoslovak Ocean Shipping company.

View of the street from the hotel in Punta Arenas, where the expedition spent a strict quarantine period. Photo: Tomáš Spáčil.

The team of scientists set out in the early morning hours of December 16, 2020 and, after two days travelling with stopovers in Frankfurt, Madrid and Santiago de Chile, they arrived to Punta Arenas, Chile, at the southernmost tip of South America. “The number of airlines that now fly between Europe and South America is quite small. While there used to be five flights a day, there are now only three or four flights a week. Planning a flight itinerary was pretty complicated”, said Nývlt.

At Punta Arenas, our researchers spent nearly a month under a strict quarantine to minimise risks associated with the spread of covid-19. The point was to , because evacuating people from Antarctica is extremely difficult. And, of course, the expedition physician does not have all the equipment that would be available in European or American hospitals on site. The fastest evacuation would take several days and would be hugely complicated”, said Nývlt.

After several negative tests and plan changes due to the epidemiological and meteorological situation (the ship usually sets sail to avoid stronger waves and winds in the Drake Passage), the polar explorers boarded the Chilean military ship Marinero Fuentealba on January 13, which then transported them to Antarctica and the J. G. Mendel Station. Transfer from the Chilean navy ship was done by helicopter, while the ship stayed close to Vega Island. Unloading of the cargo was completed early in the morning on January 18 CET. Originally, the polar explorers expected the voyage to take about ten days, as it also included stops at stations on the South Shetlands archipelago, where fuel and other materials are usually unloaded for other bases first.

Standing from left to right: F. Vorel (1st technician), K. Láska (expedition leader and climatologist), Z. Engel (glaciologist), J. Kavan (geomorphologist), D. Murínová (physician), T. Spáčil (2nd technician), P. Švec (microbiologist) and J. Smolíková (glaciologist and geomorphologist) in front of the ship OPV 83 Marinero Fuentealba. Photo: Czech Antarctic Research Program Archives.
Leaving Chile. Photo: Czech Antarctic Research Program Archives.
A satellite image from January 15 showing that sea ice is being driven by a western winds into the mouth of Prince Gustav Channel to the Antarctic Sound.

After ensuring that the station was ready for standard operation, the scientists were ready to start fieldwork. Before individual measurements could take place, it was first necessary to make sure all the equipment and devices on the base were ready for long-term operation. "The scientists are not aiming to solve any new scientific problems during this season; instead, they will continue the long-term monitoring operations that we have been working on for a long time. This is the most important requirement for maintaining the Czech Antarctic research program”, said Nývlt.

The J.G. Mendel Czech Antarctic Station is the pride of the Czech science. While it is used primarily for climate change research, scientists from more than thirty other scientific disciplines have made use of the infrastructure to examine living and non-living elements of the Antarctic environment. The station is also used to test the resistance of different technologies and products manufactured in the Czech Republic, such as paints, plastics, footwear or wind turbines. Since its founding, more than a hundred scientists from both the Czech Republic and abroad have participated in scientific projects at the station.

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