Thanks to Luciano I0JBL we managed to re-enact the history of Italian ham radio operations in territories of Antarctica. A huge thanks is due to Davide IZ8ESX for the great job he performed and to Mark, W0BG for the English translation of the article (n.d.r.).
I have often wondered why there was so much interest in the huge “ice cream cake” that surrounds the South Pole, which is simply called “the ICE” by Americans and New Zealanders…When you are upside down, or “down under” as the “kiwi” are used to saying, the” nice day today” in the Anglo-Saxon tradition is replaced by a simple, “How are you on the ice?” Or “When you leave the ice?”
Few residents, about three thousand during the austral summer and only few a few hundred during the winter, a few animals, no plants, except for a few lichens, a vast expanse of endless nothing…Actually, no: a lot of ice!
Interest probably stems from the fact that it is difficult to imagine another place on the planet that is so foreign and alien like this and, who knows, maybe full of mysteries.
Much more pragmatically speaking, the mysteries which are hidden are not those of Superman’s Fortress of Solitude or some kind of lost civilization … rather the mysteries hidden in our future: our future will have air richer in carbon dioxide; sweet water will be increasingly scarce; the overall conditions of life increasingly difficult.
This perhaps may be of key interest for those who have chosen a technological hobby that does not stop the use of things, but has a drive to comprehend the essence of life, to understand and investigate!
This is the main reason that prompts me to accept the invitation of DxCoffee to talk about Antarctica, going beyond how it looks at first sight, using my experience of more than 15 years of work in ENEA’s Antarctic Project’s Engineering and Logistics Division.
I imagine that many people will wonder about the reason for an Italian presence in Antarctica and also about the location of our base in the Ross Sea.
These are reasonable questions, as the sixth continent is more or less fifteen thousand kilometers from Italy. It has a surface of approximately one and a half times that of the the United States of America. There’s plenty of space!!
I’ve taken charge of this account, almost thirty years since the first expedition of National Programme of Antarctic Research (PNRA), in 1985.
The reasons why – in 1985, Law 184, PNRA was formed for reasons purely political – shortly after the Antarctic Treaty, was signed by but a few countries in Washington in 1959. It was going to come under discussion again and the possibility to become an Advisory Member would be given only to those countries that were able to demonstrate a continuity of presence and activities by means of a base for a significant period of time.
Italy chose to organize a national program instead of founding an institute suited to polar research as other countries did (like Germany with the Alfred Wegner Institute or the United Kingdom with the British Antarctic Survey).
The National Program evolved into a matrix-like organization structured for a variety of skills, all institutions, agencies and universities, placing all personnel and equipment in common for the period of the scientific expedition. Personnel and equipment would then return to the respective institute after the end of the expedition without the need to keep up a bloated and wasteful infrastructure.
Now, a bit down the road, this decision seems somewhat forced and we have been wanting or trying to join the Antarctic Program. Also, there are other operations, carried out in remote places such as the CNR Svalbard Islands and the Pyramid on K2. But that’s another story!
Requiring a common thread that would provide continuity to these initiatives, good administrative capacity and broad-spectrum logistics expertise, the ENEA was charged with the role of Enforcement Agency for the Antarctic Program.
ENEA was the only Agency, having its internal divisions of engineering professionally developed, also working in the nuclear arena, with experimental and transverse skills: from carpenter to turner, from researcher to engineer.
Once the structure of the PNRA was established, it was necessary to identify the area and come under agreement with other countries regarding the rules of occupation of the territory. At that time some countries still had territorial claims which would later be addressed with a new Treaty.
The end choice was Ross Sea because the last Italian research activities on the Antarctic continent had been conducted under the auspices of the American National Science Foundation and the New Zealand Antarctic Research Agency: in fact, between 1957 and 1958, during the International Geophysical Year, seismologist Faggioni Franco had already been working on his research at Scott Base (NZ) and in 1962 another Italian, Fiorenzo Ugolini, conducted important research regarding that of polar mountain climbing Mount Erebus, which is located just above the American McMurdo Base, of ‘USARP (United States Antarctic Research Program).
The very first Italian expedition was designed and managed by CNR and CAI with professor of physical geography Aldo Segre charged with the role of Expedition Chief in 1968. Professors Marcello Manzoni (geophisic) and Carlo Stocchino (meteorologist and oceanographer) joined that Expedition too. Carlo Mauri was the mountain guide and the destination was Victoria Land. During the 90s, I had the privilege of being a co-worker of Professor Carlo Stocchino.
A few years later, in 1973, the second Italian expedition ever organized by CNR and CAI took place; the crew was the same as the previous one and another mountain guide served during this expedition: Maffei. The third Expedition to Antarctica, in 1976, completed the research program of CNR. I would like to remind our readers that as part of these exchanges was a researcher by the name of Ivo di Menno, who would be helping me a lot several years later during my first expedition to Antarctica.
The choice of this area was not made considering only the successful cooperation of NZ and US reasearchers: the Weddell Sea and Antarctic Peninsula had seen a long continuous proliferation of bases and activities pertaining to research. The Ross Sea, however, was an area where there was still a lot of work in connection with the work already accomplished. So it was that and under the unrelenting pressure of the Italian scientific community, with Manzoni and Stocchino in the forefront, that a political agreement was reached between Italy and New Zealand, which at that time had territorially claimed the entire Ross Sea (Ross Dependencies). This agreement was signed by President Cossiga during his visit to that country.
This strategic and political choice, however, had the advantage of opening a new frontier for Italian Research, the Antarctic, directly conducting activities that until then had always been managed under the auspices of foreign research programs.
Providing that our base would be the Ross Sea, we needed to find a place that could meet the criteria providing for interesting scientific opportunities with availability of good facilities for logistical operations. The final choice fell on a more temperate area located in Terra Nova Bay (TNB).
That area could exploit the presence of polynia, which is an important metereological regulator with interesting physico-chemical and biologically unique qualities.
The polynia is an area of the ocean that, for reasons of its own, is also open during the long Antarctic winter. This fact allows for the simultaneous presence of three species of penguins: two types of Adelie penguins and that of the Emporor Penguin. The Emperor Penguin, in particular, use the polynia’s warmer area where the sea remains open even during wintertime to dive and go to hunt for food.
The Terra Nova Bay area also has two major glaciers: the Champbell and the Drigalsky, which consists of a large strip of ice in the Ross Sea stretching for hundreds and hundreds of kilometers into the sea, making it work as an interesting observation’s point to verify the drainage of the ice cap and, therefore, an important instrument for observing the “state of health” of the entire continent.
Those who have seen pictures of the base facing the sea should have noticed the presence of nearby impressive mountains: Mount Melbourne is an active volcano which could be interesting for further study and investigations into the field of chemistry, volcanology and seismology.
After scrutinizing the scientific aspects, Terra Nova Bay also has undeniable attractions from a logistical standpoint.: this more temperate area was affords good exposure to the sun and particular protection against the wind. The terrain is quite level, making it easier to construct living quarters, accomodate scientific instruments and to transport workers on and off site.
Choosing this site could, therefore, guarantee favorable operating conditions to start with for researchers and technicians who would be working there.
Interesting once again for purposes of logistics, is the proximity of the Tethys Bay, navigable by ship and, when the ice is quite solid, can be used as a landing strip for aircraft.
That was it: Terra Nova Bay was our destination!!
For the sake of clarity it is necessary to say that other operations had chosen a different location, the Antarctic Peninsula, as their final destination. I’m referring to the two single expeditions of the oceangoing vessels San Giuseppe II commanded by Giovanni Ajmone Cat and the 1975 expedition of the Renato Cepparo. Both expeditions were moderately successful despite the many difficulties encountered, albeit these expeditions represent a real step forward: the country was not ready to accept them and their sacrifices; especially those of Cepparo were in vain as the Base (dedicated to the memory of the explorer Giacomo Bove), built in an area claimed by Argentina, destroyed by the Argentines themselves shortly after the Italians left it.
That Base was donated to the Italian State by Cepparo. It was both a spontaneously generous and rather questionable act still under investigation by historians.
In this particular case, the University of Trieste and its National Museum of Antarctica, is charged with the management of this bit of history.
Quite eccentric is the story of the National Museum of Antarctica with three locations: one in Genoa, one in Siena and one in Trieste…but that’s another story!!
Luciano Blasi I0JBL
Photo credits:Luciano Blasi, I0JBL; Highland Adventures; Hannes Grobe, Alfred Wegener Institute for Polar and Marine Research, Bremerhaven, Germany; National Snow and Ice Data Center, University of Colorado, Boulder.
English Translation: Mark A. Kelley, W0BG and Davide Pisani, IZ8ESX.