Ukrainians in Antarctica Study Whales and Climate Change, Earn From Krill and Tourism
24 February, 2020
Penguins in Antarctica. National Antarctic Scientific Center of Ukraine

200 years ago, in late January 1820, the assumption that there was another continent on Earth's southernmost pole was confirmed, and Antarctica was discovered. 

The participants of the Russian expedition, Fabian Bellingshausen and Mikhail Lazarev, are considered to be the pioneers of this discovery. However, this status is also claimed by researchers from at least two countries – the United Kingdom and the United States, who had arrived almost simultaneously on the shores of Antarctica.

Today, Antarctica is a unique continent. It is the least populated, the coldest and the highest. The average height is 2,000 meters, somewhere like the Ukrainian Hoverla mountain. In 1959, the nations of the world agreed that the Antarctic lands do not officially belong to anyone. No minerals or weapons may be deployed here, and only scientific activities are permitted.

About 30 countries have their research stations in Antarctica. Since 1996, Ukraine has been among them. Evgen Dykyj , Director of the National Antarctic Scientific Center, told Hromadske how Ukraine got its own Antarctic station, what the country gets from it, what it costs, and what benefits it may bring to Ukraine in the future.

From Faraday to Vernadsky

The Ukrainians in Antarctica have mostly kept to the British Faraday Antarctic Station on Galindez Island, which was transferred to Ukraine for a nominal fee of one pound. Later the station was renamed to Akademik Vernadsky Station.  In 1996, South Korea was Ukraine's main competitor for this“gift”.

“We won because of two factors: we already had a pool of more than 20 researchers, and we didn't need to learn from scratch (In 1993, Ukraine created the Antarctic Center without having a station, – ed.). And at that moment we had our own research fleet. Now the situation is the opposite: South Korea now has two Antarctic stations and a beautiful icebreaker. And our fleet was sent to scrap metal in 2001,” says Evgen Dykyj.

After the collapse of the USSR, Ukraine attempted to claim one or two Antarctic stations. It should have been in proportion to the contribution of Ukrainians to the exploration of Antarctica as part of Soviet expeditions. But Ukraine did not receive any.

Ukrainians have been part of all Soviet expeditions since 1956. A "hybrid of tank and house" manufactured by the Kharkiv Tractor Plant was the main vehicle in Antarctica at the time. Researchers have lived in it for months and even did surgery there.

But Ukrainians participated in the first expeditions to Antarctica as well. Ivan Zavadovsky arrived in Antarctica with Bellingshausen. According to his letter of nobility, he was of "Cossack lineage, from the city of Hadiach, Poltava nobleman." And Anton Omelchenko was the first Ukrainian to set foot on the ice of Antarctica. He took part in the expedition of the British Robert Scott to the South Pole.

Evgen Dykyj , Director of the National Antarctic Scientific Center, speaks to Hromadske on December 30. Photo: hromadske

Income from Antarctica

“Polar research is an area where science, politics, and economics intersect. Our work is not just a “bare” science. This is also about keeping an outpost for future generations. In fact, this is an application to be in the club. This is not a matter of prestige, but of the future division of resources,” said Dykyj.

Production of krill – small crustaceans resembling tiny shrimp – is the main source of income from Antarctica for Ukraine and a number of other countries. Dykyj calls it “one of the most underutilized resources on the planet.”  Operating a krill fishery is a complex process and not every country has the proper technology. Simultaneously, over 100 people work on a relatively small Ukrainian vessel engaged in fishing krill. Thanks to this industry, activities in Antarctica aren’t loss-making for Ukraine.

Tourism in Antarctica is actively developing. The first travelers visited the shores of Antarctica for an additional fee on mail ships from the Falkland Islands back in the 1920s. And now this sector of the economy is growing at a rate of 15–20% per year. Tens of thousands of tourists visit Antarctica in a season that lasts from November to March.

In the late 1950s, tourist flights from Australia and South America to Antarctica were launched. And since the 1960's tourists have been able to get there by yacht. Flight tours are the cheapest, and cost from 7–8 thousand U.S. dollars, not including the cost of the flight to South America.

The Vernadsky Research Base located at Marina Point on Galindez Island of Argentine Islands. Photo: National Antarctic Scientific Center of Ukraine

Future Economy

Under the Antarctic Treaty, mining of mineral resources is prohibited until 2048. But scientific exploration is already allowed, and Ukrainian geologists are conducting it.

However, the main value of the continent is not hidden in its depths. The Antarctic ice sheet is the largest on the planet, ten times bigger than the Greenland's. It has almost 30 million cubic kilometers of ice containing 70% of the world's freshwater resources.

"The companies that are first to develop technology for transporting an iceberg from Antarctica to the shores of South America, Africa or Australia will immediately become billionaires. Even now there is a huge demand for fresh water in the world. Last year I went on a sea voyage from Antarctica to Cape Town. And I saw what a million-populated city with no drinking water is. Where all the water is only 50 liters per person per day. And you can’t buy more – simply because there is no more water. I think we can all live to see oil not the most profitable liquid on the planet. It will be succeeded by water in the form of an Antarctic ice floe,” explained Dykyj.

Achievements in Science

Antarctica is experiencing dynamic changes, and global weather trends are very easy to observe and learn from on the continent. The most valuable thing for Ukrainian science in Antarctica are the long series of observations - some of which were started by British scientists at the Faraday station. The Ukrainian magnetic observatory in Antarctica is considered one of the top ten in the world. It measures the fluctuations of the Earth's magnetic field from the deep to the upper layers of the atmosphere.

"Studying the earth's magnetic field is one of the reasons why mankind holds such an expensive toy as an Antarctic station. The polar regions are the pulses of the planet, where we can measure what is happening here [in Ukraine], but here we cannot study it,” Dykyj stated, adding that the Vernadsky Station has one of three antenna complexes through which the Earth's ionosphere can be studied.

Furthermore, global warming is very visible in Antarctica and can be verified in a reliable way by measuring thunderstorm activity in the upper atmosphere. This method is called a “global thermometer”. And moreover, Ukrainian scientists are studying the anomalous phenomenon of global warming in the upper stratosphere. The large-scale wildfires, in particular the recent ones in Australia, could be the direct result of this phenomenon.

“Since the beginning of the observations in the 1950s, the average annual temperature has increased by three degrees. Three degrees is the difference between Ukraine and Scandinavia,” Dykyj said.

Ukrainians in Antarctica study not only the climate but also the flora and fauna of the continent. The Ukrainian scientists were the ones to thoroughly describe one of the whale species that reside there. The focus of the Ukrainian researchers on whales, clarified Dykyj, is an attempt to atone for mass killings of whales by the Soviet Union, which lasted until 1987. Whaling ships heading to the shores of Antarctica were based in Odesa.

From January to March, the station has the most favorable conditions for exploring the Southern Ocean. During this period, seasonal scientists come here to collect samples for further study. The rest of the year, the Antarctic coast is clogged with ice and it is impossible to reach the sea. This was one of the reasons why the U.K. transferred the station to Ukraine. If Ukraine had its own icebreakers, the season of active research could be extended to seven months.

Ukrainian researchers study animals that live on the continent. Photo shows fur seals in Antarctica. Photo: National Antarctic Scientific Center of Ukraine

To Buy An Icebreaker

In November 2019, the Cabinet of Ministers had allocated approximately 10 million U.S. dollars to purchase Ukraine's own Antarctic research vessel. However, by the end of the year, the promised funds were never found in the budget, and the purchase was postponed to the next year.

Britain is ready to sell Ukraine a ship for that reasonable $10 million price. This icebreaker is needed by scientists for both research and logistics at the Vernadsky Station.

"The season begins in January, and you can not imagine what it means now to charter a vessel. The services market in Antarctica today is one where demand far exceeds supply. To charter a vessel there now is not only a matter of availability of funds but also a matter of a queue. Who made the proposal first and who offered the best conditions for freight. For example, the vessel we used last year is already chartered by another expedition for the full two months,”  Dykyj elaborated.

In 2019, the Ukrainian station was upgraded, and now there are very few ships capable of transporting heavy equipment to Akademik Vernadsky Station.

“We are not launching a crowdfunding campaign for ethical reasons. After all, there are a bunch of military needs where money needs to be collected this way. But to say 'in a belligerent country, it would be better to buy a warship' is a level of absolute incompetence. People do not understand that the acquisition of warships is not a matter of money but rather of diplomatic agreements reached over the years. Those who think that instead of buying the icebreaker, you can go and buy a destroyer, they just don't live in the real world,” Dykyj explained.

/By Lena Kurenkova

/Translated by Vladyslav Kudryk

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