New Antarctic station puts Czech polar research on the map

Photo: Hynek Adamek, National Geographic

In February 2004, a group of Czech scientists set out for the freezing temperatures of James Ross Island in Antarctica with a view to establishing the first Czech Antarctic research centre there. 2 years on, and the unprecedented project has finally been completed, giving Czech scientists a chance to study the Antarctic climate and its effects on global weather systems from their own state of the art polar station.

Since the 1960s Czech scientists have been studying Antarctica using foreign stations located on the continent. Although the Czech Republic was one of the original 43 countries who signed the Antarctic Treaty back in 1960, which defines the standards for scientific research in Antarctica, it is one of the last to establish a base on the continent, with past research having been conducted only with help from other treaty nations. From December, however, Czech polar research will take a huge leap in catching up with international standards. After 6 years of meticulous planning and 60 million Czech crowns of funding (the equivalent of around 2.5 million U.S. dollars), the first Czech Antarctic research centre has recently been completed on James Ross Island. Viktor Hybner is one of the senior engineers responsible for the construction of the station:

"We started this project three years ago and we built it in two stages. The first stage was in the year 2004/5 and the second in 2005/6, as we could build it only in the Antarctic summer, that's half way through December to half way through March. Our project consists of one main building which is designed for 20 people and then 9 supporting units, utilities which are built from containers."

The project, which has been organised and funded by the Education Ministry and the Czech Academy of Science, will allow for more advanced research in a number of areas. For example, scientists will be able to monitor the effects of airflow on the annual temperature in Antarctica and the effects these temperature changes have on world weather systems. Also amongst those stationed on the island will be a number of biological and botanical researchers, who will be examining local flora. As one of the most modern and ecologically sensitive stations currently on the icecap, the new Czech centre is equipped with state of the art technology:

"It was designed by the Czech Design Office, and we were looking to use ecological sources. For example, we are using around 50 square metres of solar panels, which are for the heating and for the hot water. Then we have about eight wind powered plants, each with around a one and a half kilowatt output, so we are using very natural sources for consumption and for the operation of the station."

James Ross Island,  photo: NASA Dryden Flight Research Center
But why should Czechs be interested in the weather conditions in a barren environment so far from home? Viktor Hybner believes it could pave the way for significant discoveries in the future:

"I think that it is very important for the Czech people because the James Ross was not investigated before so it is a good chance for the young scientists to gain some new scientific data I think. Our position on the James Ross Island is better as there aren't any other scientific stations there. We are the first to build such a station, and so there are many opportunities for the scientists to find new life."

The new centre, named after the geneticist and meteorologist Johann Gregor Mendel, who lived and worked in Moravia, is a significant step for Czech science, as it finally puts the country in a position where it can make major research breakthroughs, putting Czech polar research firmly on the map.