Four years after its old research station went up in flames, Brazil has started work on a new $100 million scientific stronghold in Antarctica. A symbolic founding stone was unveiled on Monday by Brazilian defense minister Aldo Rebelo during a ceremony in Punta Arenas, Chile. The plan was to hold the event at the station site in Antarctica—at the edge of the Keller Peninsula, on King George Island—but bad weather grounded the flight that was scheduled to take the party there.
Compared with the previous base that operated for nearly 30 years, the new one, expected to be completed in 2018, has a slick futuristic design, with 17 laboratories and cozy accommodations for about 65 people. But scientists worry about whether a looming funding squeeze will crimp research by the time the station is up and running. “To build a new station is commendable. But if new research projects are not approved, it won’t do us any good,” says Yocie Yoneshigue-Valentin, a marine botanist at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro (UFRJ) and general coordinator of the National Science and Technology Institute for Environmental Research in Antarctica.
An investigation concluded that the fire in February 2012 started in a machine room, after a fuel tank was left unattended and overflowed during a refueling operation. Two Navy officers died combating the flames; none of the roughly 30 scientists working at the station at the time were injured. The federal government responded quickly, installing 45 emergency operational modules and replacing all equipment on site within a year of the accident. That has kept Brazilian science afloat in Antarctica, with support from two Navy research ships and international collaborations. A quarter of Brazil’s science program in Antarctica depends on the land station, with the rest carried out aboard ships or in seasonal summer camps.
But since the national economy took a dive in 2015, research funding across the board has withered, making grants a bigger concern than infrastructure for most scientists. Jefferson Simões, a leading glaciologist at the Federal University of Rio Grande do Sul and coordinator of the National Institute of Science and Technology for the Cryosphere, hopes the new station won’t become an “empty house.” The last time the federal government issued a call for research in Antarctica was in 2013, and that pot of money is expected to dry up in the next 6 months, he says. “That’s the big question now: What are we going to do after October, when the money runs out?”
The new station will keep the name of the old one, Comandante Ferraz—in honor of a Navy oceanographer—and will be located at the exact same spot, only 900 kilometers from South America, which is just about the nearest point between the two continents. Geological surveys and other field preparations are underway. The main building will be almost twice as big as the previous complex, with 4500 square meters of work space. “The project is something to be proud of,” says João Paulo Machado Torres, a biophysicist at UFRJ who studies environmental pollution and has gone on four expeditions to Antarctica.