Environment & Science Writer
A TEN-year construction project on remote Marion Island, that tested the building team’s endurance and logistical capability to the limit, culminates tonight in the inauguration of a R200 million, state-of-the-art research base.
The base on this sub-Antarctic island will provide appropriate facilities for researchers producing the cutting-edge science that is helping South Africa fulfil its international obligations in terms of the Antarctic Treaty, and to punch above its weight in the geopolitical context of the vast and important Southern Ocean region, says one of the senior scientists involved.
“Strategically, it’s very important for us to be there (in the treaty system), and we have to be involved if we want to remain a member,” says Professor Steven Chown, director of Stellenbosch University’s Centre for Invasion Biology and a former chairman of the Prince Edward Islands management committee.
“And it’s also important to do world-class science, because your status in the (geopolitical) system depends on the quality of your work.”
The new base will also make life easier for meteorologists working on the island who are helping to maintain an unbroken record of meteorological data stretching back to 1948. This data forms a critical part of the information used by weather forecasters in South Africa and in global weather models.
The last in a series of seasonal construction teams from the national Public Works department, who have been working on the new base since August 2003, arrived at the island aboard the SA Agulhas on Tuesday.
They were to have been flown off by helicopter early in the day but all flights were cancelled because of strong winds that were blowing at about 40 knots (about 70 km/h) and gusting to 70 knots (about 130km/h), compounded by rough seas and poor visibility with low cloud, some rain and even brief flurries of sleet.
By late afternoon on Tuesday, conditions had improved sufficiently for them to be flown to the island in the powerful Kamov helicopter, one of two choppers aboard the ship.
The team will spend the next two months putting the finishing touches to the 80-bed hi-tech base that has been built on the “footprint” of the old helicopter landing site on this highly sensitive island.
But the new base is already functional and is occupied by the annual over-wintering team that has been on the island for 12 months.
Tonight Deputy Minister of Public Works Hendrietta Bogopane-Zulu – who celebrated her 40th birthday on the voyage there – will officially open the new base. The ceremony is being attended by senior officials from her department and from the “client”, the Antarctica and Islands section of the national Department of Environmental Affairs, as well as top-rated researchers like Chown and Professor Marthan Bester of Pretoria University, who have helped establish the rich scientific output from the island; VIP guests who include several island team veterans, the current over-wintering team and journalists.
Marion Island and Prince Edward Island, some 2 170km south-east of Cape Town, form the Prince Edward Island group which was annexed by South Africa in 1947 and which is its only overseas territory. National claims in Antarctica, where South Africa also has a base, are not recognised under the Antarctic Treaty.
These largely intact wilderness areas were declared Special Nature Reserves in 1995 – the highest possible conservation status in South Africa’s conservation legislation – and Marion Island was also declared a Ramsar Wetland of International Importance in 2007.
As a result, they are both managed according to extremely strict environmental regulations – particularly Prince Edward Island, which has never been colonised or invaded by alien mammals like mice or rats – which added to the construction team’s already difficult task.
These regulations, enforced by dedicated environmental control officers from the Environmental Affairs Department, included a ceremonial but highly practical “boot washing” ceremony aboard the ship.
This involved a careful check of all outdoor gear and clothing being used by everyone visiting the island, and a thorough scrubbing of footwear in a disinfectant solution to prevent the possible inadvertent transfer of any alien organisms to the island.
Planning of the new base was initiated in 2001, the first building team started preparatory ground work in August 2003, and construction of the superstructure of the base, that includes two-storey science and luxurious accommodation blocks, started in 2005.
“There were quite a few challenges, particularly because we were building in winter,” construction manager Heine Smith explained.
“There were winds of up to 120km/h, the island gets about 2 200mm of rain a year, there was snow and ice, and extreme cold of up to -15ºC.