Special on Antarctica: Italian Research at the Edge of the World. An Interview with Antonio Meloni
Antonio Meloni is President of the National Scientific Committee for Antarctica-CSNA, which strategically directs Italian research activities in the Antarctic continent and ensures the scientific evaluation of proposals submitted by the national community to the National Antarctic Research Programme-PNRA, funded by the Ministry of Education, University and Research. Since 1985, the PNRA has enabled more than 3,000 Italian scientists and specialists to carry out cutting-edge research at the edge of the world, with important advances in many scientific fields.
Professor Meloni, it was 1985 when Italy undertook its first scientific expedition to the Antarctic continent. How was the idea of conducting research at the South Pole developed?
The idea was developed from the important political choice made by the Italian Government in 1981 to sign the Antarctic Treaty that governs the freedom of scientific research for peaceful purposes in this large continent, prohibiting military activities and setting aside sovereignty disputes between Treaty parties. The Treaty provided that, in order to carry out scientific research in the Antarctic, the Treaty parties had to have a specific programme. That is how the PNRA, the National Antarctic Research Programme, was established, which still directs the strategic choices of Italian research. Italy’s 34th Antarctic expedition will start in October this year. In addition to continuing the multi-year research activities in progress, new research projects will be selected in the context of the PNRA 2018 call, to which MIUR has committed a budget of 7.1 million euro for two years.
What are some of the successes achieved by Italian research in over 30 years of scientific expeditions?
First of all, we have built two important research stations, the Mario Zucchelli Station, located in the Ross Sea area, and the Concordia Station, located on the Antarctic continental plateau. The Mario Zucchelli Station – named in honour of the late Italian engineer Mario Zucchelli, who promoted its construction for years – can host on average 80 technicians and researchers during the austral summer (October-February). Research activities here mainly focus on life sciences, including studies on penguins, seals and other marine animals, to understand their adaptation to the environment in relation to global climate change. Activities include research on the geological evolution of Antarctica; the collection of data from a network of physical instrumentations and chemical analyses for the study of the Antarctic atmosphere; the study of Earth’s magnetic field. Finally, from here missions depart to search for Antarctic meteorites. The Concordia Station, managed together with France, is located about 1,200 km from the coast, at an altitude of more than 3,000 metres. Unlike Mario Zucchelli Station, it is operational all year round. In summer it can host up to 50 people, while about a dozen people, including technicians, researchers and a medical doctor, spend the harsh Antarctic winter in a condition of absolute darkness for about 3-4 months and at temperatures that can fall below –80°C.
What research is carried out in this extreme place, the Concordia Station?
Concordia is the ideal station for carrying out research on the physics and chemistry of the atmosphere but also for research in astrophysics, because the clear air and the low humidity make this the perfect place to make accurate observations of the universe. The vast ice sheet that covers the entire Antarctic continent allows us to drill out ice cores to gather information about the past climate. The largest glaciology study ever carried out in Antarctica was conducted near the Concordia Station with EPICA-European Project for Ice Coring in Antarctica, a European project that also involved Italy and that allowed the reconstruction of the atmospheric composition and the temperatures over the past 800,000 years. There is a new project in the pipeline that could allow us to go further back in time, over one million years, always drilling in the area around the Concordia Station.
A success for Antarctic activities was the establishment of the world’s largest marine protected area in the Ross Sea.
In 2016, the Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (CCAMLR), consisting of 24 countries, reached an agreement for the creation of this vast marine area after 5 years of negotiations, which had Italy at the forefront, also thanks to our research experience in the Ross Sea area that hosts the Mario Zucchelli Station. As a result, the waters of the Ross Sea, once threatened by commercial fishing, especially to the detriment of krill (small crustaceans eaten as food by whales), are now protected from any intensive fishing activity and represent an important open-air laboratory for research purposes.
Can you tell us about some future actions of the Italian programme in Antarctica?
The strategic plan for the period 2017-2019 includes research on some fundamental issues. The programme includes the organization of scientific expeditions to Antarctica, with activities to be carried out at Italian and foreign Antarctic research stations and in the context of oceanographic campaigns of physical-chemical, biological-ecological and geological-geophysical interest in the Southern Ocean. This large continent, in fact, acts as a sentinel of the environmental change underway and is an excellent archive of Earth’s climate history, useful to understand the evolution of life and the environment on Earth. Research will also be conducted on the atmosphere and the universe through astronomical observations. In terms of logistics, a permanent airfield for landings is under construction near the Mario Zucchelli Station. PNRA charter flights from New Zealand still land on sea ice and therefore landings are only possible during short periods of the year. The future is still uncertain for the support for cargo ships and the oceanographic campaigns, fundamental activities for the countries operating in Antarctica and for which the programme is not yet equipped with its own vessel with the right characteristics.