Polar explorers are left out in the cold

November 25, 2005

A freeze of a different kind may force the closure of Italy's research programme in the Antarctic.

Cuts in the 2006 national budget threaten the Mario Zucchelli Station in Terra Nova Bay, which has been operating for more than 20 years. Italy's role in the Italo-French base of Concordia, which this year continued to operate through the winter for the first time, is under threat.

Collaboration with foreign scientists, including members of the British Antarctic Survey, is also in jeopardy.

"Our annual €30 million (£20.5 million) has disappeared from the budget," said Carlo Alberto Ricci, a geologist at Siena University and president of Italy's Antarctic Commission.

"We received assurances from the research ministry that it is doing its best to obtain funds, but the budget was just approved by the Senate and there was no amendment in our favour," Professor Ricci said. "We are now hoping for a last-minute amendment in the Chamber of Deputies."

Italy's role in the Antarctic dates back to the 1960s. The salaries of Italians working there are covered by their respective universities and research institutes, but central government funds are needed for running costs, including at least seven flights a day, by helicopter or Twin Otter, between the Terra Nova Bay and Concordia stations.

From the Zucchelli station, expedition leader Giuseppe de Rossi said:

"Cutting our budget will not save money. An Antarctic station cannot be abandoned. It must be carefully and completely dismantled and removed, to safeguard the environment.

"For several years this would cost much more than keeping it running. But we do not even want to think of such a possibility."

Professor Ricci said: "There is sponsorship from companies supplying clothing and other equipment, but this is a small fraction of the costs.

"In October, Education and Research Minister Letizia Moratti signed a new agreement on collaboration with her French counterpart Francois Goulard as President Jacques Chirac and Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi looked on. It is unthinkable that Italian research in the Antarctic, which has been extremely successful, should suddenly end."

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