Female engineer braves odds in Antarctica

The Carlini base, seen from an Argentine Navy ship off King George (25 de Mayo) Island in the South Shetland archipelago in Antarctica. (Only for use with this dpa Illustrated Feature. Photo credit to "Cancillería Argentina / dpa" mandatory.)


Carlini Base / DPA

What’s it like to live surrounded by an immense swath of sea, ice and mountains, 900 kilometres from the nearest city? Julia Luna, 28, is the first woman to spend a winter here on Argentina’s Carlini Base, an Antarctic scientific research site.
As a systems engineer, she has one of the most unusual jobs on the planet. All the vastness generates its own microclimate, which at times can make you forget that you are in the remote Antarctic seas, far from everyone and everything. “We live out so many unimaginable experiences here,” says Luna.
Life on the base is never straightforward. There is the long winter, for example, that cuts off sea and air access to Carlini Base, sited on King George Island, part of the South Shetland archipelago.
Despite the hardships of months spent with very little daylight, Luna doesn’t think wintering on this island off the northern tip of the Antarctic Peninsula is all that bad.
“In winter there are enough rooms for everyone, because there are (only) 28 of us. In summer – no, because a lot of people come, a lot of researchers, and at times we have to eat in shifts. But in winter the difference is striking, because those who remain live like family,” she said. In recent years up to 150 people have been known to spend the summer at Carlini Base.
“I don’t think it’s hard living through the winter, you can be comfortable. You don’t feel isolated either; it’s like a time to rest,” Luna added.
Here training in systems and telecommunications engineering enables her to take charge of maintenance of the information systems at the Carlini Base. “In summer, there is light all day, and it can drive you a bit crazy,” she admits.
Getting to the base is not easy and can only be done between the months of October and March. First of all, you must wait for the austral spring when the sea ice begins to retreat.
The trip from the city of Rio Gallegos, 2,500 kilometres to the south of Buenos Aires, to the South Shetlands takes three hours on large, impressive-looking Hercules planes. But landing the airplanes is a bit of an adventure on the rocky runway.
Every flight carries spare tires for take-off, as tires routinely rupture on landing. From the Chilean base on the island, where the only airstrip is located, a climb up a ladder hanging from the side of a ship gets you on a moored Argentine naval vessel.
Then comes the navigating between the Antarctic ice formations. This trip does have some rewards, like the playful penguins swimming and jumping over the waves at high speed, and if you’re lucky, you’ll catch sight of a whale.
But even in full summer the icy Antarctic wind punishes the photographers snapping away barehanded at the awesome landscape.
Since 2012 the scientific base has borne the name of Alejandro Carlini, an Antarctic scientist who died in 2010.
“In Antarctica, nature cannot be challenged,” says Commodore Marcelo Tarapow, head of Argentina’s Antarctica operations. “We come to Antarctica with an idea, then we see what nature allows us to do,” he tells dpa.
When it comes to food supplies, nature is not very accommodating in the Antarctic. “There is no fresh food here, or it arrives only in the summer. So we try to eat everything while it is still fresh, although there are some things that do last a while, like apples. “And then you cook the canned and frozen foods and other things that you can preserve during the year,” says Luna.
“We never have eggs here, or cream. Imagine, a year without cream!” she adds with a gesture somewhere between resignation and desperation. The Carlini Base gets potable water from two small lakes nearby, avoiding the time-consuming tasks of finding ice, chopping it up, and melting it, as is done elsewhere in Antarctica.
Throughout the year, regardless of the outside temperature or the quality of the light, Luna is busy maintaining scientific projects, some of them – like the monitoring of glaciers – in collaboration with a nearby German laboratory, Dallmann, that, since 1994, has been working as an annexe to Carlini.
In addition, she is in charge of maintaining the technical and computer equipment of the team of researchers.
There is also downtime at Carlini Base, which in winter is usually spent sleeping or resting, and in summer playing table tennis or walking outdoors – never alone – and always between the two lighthouses that demarcate the areas designated for this purpose. Beyond her scientific life, Luna is living, firsthand, the effects of climate change in Antarctica. “You notice that there is almost no snow during winter. You even have positive temperatures and a lot of rain. That shouldn’t happen in winter.”
Frequently, loud noises indicate that large blocks of ice are breaking off from the Fourcade glacier, located close to the Carlini Base. The depletion of the glacier, which flows slowly into Marion Bay, is a reminder of the slow, steady march of global warming.

Argentine systems engineer, Julia Luna, 28, seen at the Carlini scientific base on an island in the Antarctic.

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