Communications are key

For Jose Miguel Febrer, head of the Seismology project of the Argentine "Dirección Nacional del Antártico", the real change in Antarctic matters has come from improved telecommunications, since when Telefónica de Argentina installed a free permanent satellite link, about two years ago.

Telefonica deployed telephone links and satellite equipment in four permanent Argentine Antarctic bases: Marambio, Esperanza, Juvany and Belgrano. They all connect to a receiving and transmitting station in the Southern Argentine city of Trelew, where they are bundled in an uplink to the satellite. The network is completed at the Dirección del Antártico in Buenos Aires.

According to Febrer, the link is quite reliable, as it has been working about 95 per cent of the time. Although this is substandard for normal satellite links, it is quite good for Antarctica, where weather conditions are so harsh, especially in winter.

The Seismology project that Febrer leads comprises three permanent stations with very sensitive seismic sensors at two Antarctic bases (Esperanza and the South Orkney Islands) and a third one in the Southern tip of South America, at the Ushuaia base. This setting forms a very large triangle that allows the triangulation of seismic movements and the localization of the epicenter.

The seismic monitoring stations have been working for about ten years. The sensors remain the same, but the ancillary equipment, including IT equipment, has been evolving with time. "Now we can get a seismogram 'that graphs the earth's crust movements' in Buenos Aires in real time," says Febrer.

This geological program is being developed with an Italian partner, the Geophysical Experimental Observatory of Trieste, Italy. There is now a permanent exchange of information about what is being done in Trieste, in Buenos Aires and in the Antarctic observatories. "For those who experienced the times when communications were delayed for months, or even short wave radio communications that were so complicated and unreliable, this is a huge change," Febrer said. "The agility is surprising now."

The Antarctic is a seismologically active region. The Antarctic peninsula is, in fact, an extension of the South American Andes mountain range that is geologically recent and very active.

When asked whether these Antarctic measurements have purely scientific value or also an economic interest, Febrer reminded us that there is a moratorium on economic and mining activities in Antarctica. However, he said, for the exploitation of petroleum in nearby areas, the seismic risk must be properly assessed. If there is not such assessment, the insurance premiums are at their highest. The assessment requires several years of observations, and the Antarctic observatories make significant contributions to these measurements.

Antarctica has the harshest climate on Earth. Keeping equipment working there all year round is quite a feat, Febrer said. There have been many attempts to automate operations, leaving some sort of smart robots for observations and day-to-day duties. However, according to the expert, these attempts usually fail due to very small, unforeseeable events, such as a small duct that has been frozen, a corroded contact, or just a dust speckle in an instrument. Even very redundant systems often fail. "So we cannot just do without the presence of humans in Antarctica."

"Winds are also very strong. The Argentine Esperanza base is located at the foot of a hill, and few times a year there are winds that come down the hill at 200 km.p.h to 250 km.p.h. (125 m.p.h. to 155 m.p.h). These winds can destroy almost everything that is not very well prepared for them." According to Febrer, even wind power electric generators rated for 400 km.p.h winds have not survived a single winter there.

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