June 11, 2024 #ChileDiverse

Antarctic women: six stories of Chilean women on the White Continent

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Sixty years after the founding of the Chilean Antarctic Institute (INACH), a technical institution that develops quality research, we highlight six women whose work, science and feats are related to the Antarctic territory. 

Pioneer in an Antarctic base

In 1997, Yasna Ordonez became the first Chilean woman to become the head of an Antarctic base . "It took me by surprise, because this role was usually carried out by men, and it was because I read all the reports of the scientific expedition, and my job required me to be aware of everything that happened in the institution." 

From INACH's head of outreach, Yasna went on to lead the Professor Julio Escudero base on King George Island, the main national scientific facility in Antarctica, where she was in charge of organizing all the teams during that year's expedition, and solving emergencies in a place with extreme weather conditions and little connection with the continent. 

King George Island has an important value in terms of international scientific collaboration, hosting bases in Chile, China, Russia, Uruguay, Argentina, Korea, Poland, Peru and Brazil. Yasna worked at INACH until 2016, when she retired after 41 years in this service.

The "Ice Mermaid". 

The swimmer Bárbara Hernández broke a Guinness record in February 2023 by swimming 2.5 kilometers in the Antarctic Ocean, without a wetsuit and at a temperature of 2.2 degrees Celsius. The feat of the nicknamed "Ice Mermaid" was in the icy waters in front of the Capitán Arturo Prat Naval Base, and after finishing this feat she faced severe hypothermia. 

His intention was to draw attention to this territory and raise awareness about the polar meltdown. "We are in a race against time. This place needs protection, our whole future depends on it," says the swimmer. She adds that "Antarctica's geography has undergone significant changes. In places where 15 years ago there were ice fields, now there is mud. Therefore, it is key to ensure that it becomes a marine protected area as soon as possible.

From the classroom to Antarctica

Sofía Cerpa traveled to Antarctica when she was in third grade at Saint John School in Rancagua. In 2020, this young girl, along with her classmate Aracelli Galvez and her teacher Alex Catalán, presented a research project to the Antarctic School Fair, organized by INACH, on the effects of climate change on the penguins' immune system. The prize they won was to join an expedition with students from Talca and Colina to the Julio Escudero base on King George Island.

"It was an unforgettable experience, we spent a week in this place and accompanied the researchers on duty, it was an educational work." They observed animals, collected samples of Antarctic moss and sailed to Collins Glacier. "I was struck by the fact that all these people from different countries and contexts were united by their love for Antarctic science" and "after this trip I decided to go into science, today I am in my first year of medicine".

Polar logistics expert 

Wendy Rubio has been in charge of Operations in the INACH Expeditions Department for more than a decade , where she is responsible for coordinating all movements in Antarctica and providing the necessary support to the researchers of the Scientific Antarctic Expedition (ECA). In the last campaign she had to mobilize more than 400 people, from researchers to logistic personnel.

In addition, this industrial engineer was elected in 2023 as one of the five vice presidents of the Council of Managers of National Antarctic Programs (COMNAP), an international body that annually brings together the countries that are signatories of the Antarctic Treaty. "Antarctic logistics is very complex, so we tend to share experiences, such as means of transport and information that can be useful, for example, in the rescue of people or in security".

First woman to lead FACH base

For the first time in history, a woman assumed leadership at the Gabriel González Videla Antarctic Base between November 2023 and March 2024. Nearly 3,000 kilometers from the South Pole, flock captain Francisca Muñoz led a group of 14 people, nine military aviators and five members of the Navy, for four months. 

"My grandfather on my mother's side was a sailor and lived for a long time in Puerto Williams. She used to show me pictures, tell me stories, and that's when the need to travel to Antarctica was born", he says. The officers assigned there must maintain the national presence in the Chilean Antarctic territory, carry out maintenance work, support scientific research and collaborate with the activities of the Chilean Navy in the Bahía Paraíso Port Captaincy.

"During my stay at the base I experienced all climates in one day, light 24 hours a day and marveled at the fauna," recalls Muñoz. Currently, the captain is assigned to coordination and planning work at the Frei base on King George Island.

Study of the Antarctic flora

With more than 15 expeditions to the white continent, the plant ecophysiologist, academic and researcher of the Catholic University of Temuco (UCT), Angélica Casanova, has specialized in the flora of this territory and the effects of climate change. She has been able to demonstrate that "the increase in temperature favors the reproduction of some organisms and their adaptation", proving that "there is an increase in plant population due to glacial retreat" and that species such as lichens disappear due to heat waves. 

In his opinion, the future of humanity depends on what we are doing to protect the polar areas. "The study of Antarctica is very important, because it regulates the planet's climate. Without Antarctica, life in the world would not be feasible, so it is necessary to train new people and work together," he concludes.

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