Troubled Masaryk University Antarctic Expedition Returns Successful

Scientists from Brno’s Masaryk University landed back in the Czech Republic after completing the shortest Czech scientific expedition in Antarctica since the inauguration of the Gregor Johann Mendel Czech Scientific Station in 2007. The 20th Czech expedition lasted only 59 days due to a series of challenges that forced the team to return early.

Of those 59 days, the researchers spent 17 days at the JG Mendel station on James Ross Island, plus 6 more days on King George Island.

“The cause was logistical complications caused mainly by weather conditions and the amount of sea ice around James Ross Island,” said expedition leader Peter Váczi, of the Institutes of Geography and Experimental Biology of Masaryk University. “First, a storm raged over the Drake Strait, then we had to deal with a breakdown of the ship that was supposed to transport the expedition to the site, and the amount of ice near the island was also significant, which complicated both the safe disembarkation and the subsequent return of the expedition.”

The hardships nonetheless brought a positive aspect: the strengthening of ties with other international scientific teams. “Our scientists had the opportunity to establish new cooperation with neighbouring national science programs and carried out on-site inspection and maintenance of automatic measuring meteorological and climatological stations,” explained Pavel Kapler, the manager of the Czech Antarctic Research Program. “The cooperation and sharing of capacities across nations in Antarctica works great, and we are very grateful to all our colleagues and supporting programs.”

The forced return, which was carried out by the Chilean Navy a week before the scheduled plan because of the sea ice level and worsening of meteorological conditions, didn’t jeopardize the scientific expedition’s success.

The Czech team was in fact able to carry out all of their main projects, most notably detecting the presence of a highly infectious flu virus on site: “In the vicinity of the station, we noticed the death of five Antarctic Skuas out of about fifty nesting here in total, i.e. roughly 10% of the population of these birds on the thawed part of James Ross Island,” said biologist Miloš Barták, who was the first to acknowledge the suspicious deaths caused by the flu, later confirmed in the laboratory by the Chilean station’s team.

The scientists report that the virus is most probably spreading between bird species. However, there are no conditions for now that would allow the disease to spread to penguins – which would be most dangerous – as there are no penguin colonies in the vicinity.

Other remarkable studies involved the constant evaluation of the state of glaciers, frozen and deglaciated soils, as well as animals and plants belonging to the ecosystem. The health conditions of polar workers were also under investigation in collaboration with the Sport Studies Faculty of Masaryk University, Ostrava University Hospital, and the Czech Academy of Sciences.

Finally, Czech Industry also benefited from the cooperation with the Science team: new equipment from Moravian measuring company Comet System was tested, as well as other Czech companies’ products, including Scilif’s safety gear or Northman’s outdoor clothes. All the equipment’s performance will be evaluated in the following weeks by the Masaryk University Technology Transfer Office.

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