Trouble at the Vostok Station After investing millions in a brand-new polar research complex, Russia faces problems getting it to Antarctica
For years, Russia’s Vostok Research Station in Antarctica has been falling into a state of disrepair. In 2019, the government finally issued orders to build an entirely new complex, with one of Russia’s wealthiest citizens investing billions of rubles in the project. Constructed in St. Petersburg, the modules that comprise the new station set sail for Antarctica in October, but the cargo ship never reached its destination. Russia’s researchers stationed in Antarctica have now been told to expect further delays, and the coronavirus pandemic is making matters only worse.
The Vostok Station
Built in December 1957, amid the Second Soviet Antarctic Expedition, Russia’s Vostok Research Station is located almost at the very center of mainland Antarctica. Its location is known for extreme cold: in 1983, temperatures there dropped to –89.2 degrees Celsius (–128.6 degrees Fahrenheit) — the lowest temperature that weather stations have ever recorded on earth.
In 2013, specialists from the U.S.’s National Snow and Ice Data Center and Colorado State University reported that satellite data shows that parts of Antarctica have had air temperatures below –90 degrees Celsius (–130 degrees Fahrenheit). In particular, on August 3, 2004, the temperature in the area around Japan’s Dome Fuji Station was –91.2 degrees Celsius (–132.16 degrees Fahrenheit).
However, the Russian Antarctic Expedition (RAE) has argued that these temperatures shouldn’t be considered a new record, since they are based on satellite data and not data from weather stations.
Today, the Vostok Station is Russia’s only inland workstation in Antarctica that’s still in use (other research stations like Russkaya and Bellinghausen are located in coastal areas). The scientific work being carried out there helps researchers build our understanding of the processes occurring in the Earth’s atmosphere and climate, among other things. Antarctica’s mainland is considered a marker of global changes in these areas, because it is the most far removed from industrial and manufacturing centers.
The entire Russian Antarctic Expedition (RAE), including the work conducted at the Vostok Station, is overseen by Roshydromet (The Russian Federal Service for Hydrometeorology and Environmental Monitoring). Scientists at the Vostok Station collect ancient climate data and study ice cores, while the station itself also serves as a base for expeditions within a several-hundred-kilometer radius of its location. Specialists at the station also study changes in the atmosphere's magnetic and electrical fields, and make meteorological observations constantly.
“But these aren’t scientific studies, they’re purely monitoring studies. People obtain the data and other scientists use it,” polar explorer Alexey Yekaykin told Meduza. Yekaykin is the lead researcher at the Arctic and Antarctic Research Institute’s (AARI) Laboratory of Climate and Environmental Changes. He has been travelling to work at the Vostok Station every year for about 20 years.
Researchers don’t just work at the Vostok Station — they also live there. Each year, during the summer period — in Antarctica that’s December, January, and early February — around 30–35 researchers come to stay at the station. The rest of the year, there are 12–13 winterers living there. Polar explorer and former RAE head Valery Lukin, who has worked at the AARI since 1970, explained to Meduza that winterers actually end up spending 1.5 years there on account of the roads. Scientists studying meteorology, aerology, geophysics, magnetology, and oceanography spend the winter at the station, along with a team of support staff that includes electricians, mechanic-drivers, cooks, radio operators, and programmers, as well as surgeons and anesthesiologists.
By the 1970s, the original Vostok Station was almost entirely covered in snow. At this point, modules were brought to Antarctica and used to build a new station. But in 1982, a short circuit in the electrical wiring caused a fire to break out, destroying one of the station’s diesel generators and killing one of the polar explorers.
As of 2020, nearly 90 percent of the station’s infrastructure has worn out. Alexey Yekaykin explained to Meduza that the Vostok Station is constantly buried under a three-meter layer of snow — workers clear the entrance every summer. The polar explorers also clear the area where the electric power station is located. To get to it from the station itself, you have to go through a human-sized tunnel dug in the snow. Located beneath the snow is the Vostok Station’s drilling complex — known for revealing the subglacial Lake Vostok, which the station’s specialists study. In 2014, Russia declared the drilling complex a historical monument, though it is still in operation today.
“In central Antarctica, no matter what you build everything will be under the snow. The snow’s arrival here is inevitable. If you were to simply put up a house, it would be swept away instantly, because the flow of snow changes and artificial snow drifts will be created. And the living conditions at Vostok are still uncomfortable. It’s old and obsolete. They don’t build stations like that anymore, there are new materials,” Yekaykin says.
A 7.5-billion-ruble investment
Back in 2014, Russia’s Natural Resources and Environment Minister Sergey Donskoy said that the Vostok Station didn’t need to be modernized — it needed to be rebuilt entirely. But it wasn’t until five years later, in 2019, that the government signed a decree on the creation of a new wintering complex. One of the richest people in Russia, billionaire businessman Leonid Mikhelson — the board chairman of the Russian gas company Novatek, — invested about four billion rubles (approximately $53.3 million today) in the Vostok Station’s construction, calling it a “personal project.”
“I visited that Antarctic complex personally. Right now it’s very difficult to live, work, and carry out important scientific research there, it’s almost impossible,” Mikhelson told RIA Novosti back in August.
The businessman described the new wintering complex as unique. The design the AARI came up with includes five units with a total area of 2,500 square meters (nearly 27,000 square feet), containing a living area, laboratory, an electric power station, and a garage. The station is meant to accommodate 35 people in the summer and 15 in the winter. Four diesel generators, each with a capacity of 200 kilowatts, will supply the complex with power, and two additional standby generators are also set to be installed.
To protect the complex from getting covered in snow, the station itself will stand on special jacks. “This technology ensures the passage of snow streams under the station without delay, it reduces the wind loads and solves the problem of snow accumulation along the walls of the modules,” explained Konstantin Kondratyev, the lead engineer for the company ZapSibGazprom, which is developing the new complex. The units were manufactured at the Building Structures Pilot Plant (OZSK) in the town of Gatchina, near St. Petersburg.
The new polar research station is set to be put into operation by 2023 and its installation was supposed to begin this year. In November 2020, the Russian cabinet allocated more than 3.5 billion rubles (about $46.6 million) from the federal budget for transporting the complex to Antarctica and setting it up.
An untimely breakdown
In early October 2020, the new wintering complex was disassembled into separate module blocks, loaded on to a nuclear-powered cargo ship called the “Sevmorput,” and sent off to Antarctica. Originally, the station’s modules were supposed to be delivered to the Progress Station and then make the 1,400-kilometer (about 870-mile) journey from there to the Vostok Research Station in November.
All of the personnel needed to assemble the station — 98 people in total — were sent to the location on an icebreaker called “Kapitan Dranitsyn.” The ship reached Antarctica at the end of October, where it waited for the Sevmorput for almost a month. However, the cargo ship never reached its destination.
Before its short-lived journey to Antarctica, the Sevmorput underwent repairs at St. Petersburg’s Kanonersky Shipyard from December 2019 until February 2020. Nevertheless, the ship broke down en route to the Vostok Station: a propeller blade somehow sustained damage and the crew made the decision to dismantle it. The nuclear-powered cargo ship stopped off the coast of Angola and a group of divers were brought on board to carry out repairs. They spent three weeks working on the ship: to fix the imbalance, another propeller blade was cut off on the opposite side of the vessel.
After the repairs the Sevmorput passed its sea trials, but it didn’t leave for Antarctica. On December 2, the ship turned around and began heading back towards the port of St. Petersburg. Evgeny Sviridov — the head of the communications department at FSUE Atomflot, the company that owns the vessel — told Meduza that the Sevmorput is currently traveling the Atlantic Ocean. Once in St. Petersburg, the ship will be unloaded and its propeller-rudder complex will be repaired. Sviridov declined to answer questions about whether or not the Sevmorput would be able to resume its journey to Antarctica, or clarify what caused the breakdown. The Kanonersky Shipyard, where the ship underwent repairs in 2019–2020, didn’t respond to questions about what may have caused the Sevmorput to break down. And Novatek didn’t respond to questions about what project investor Leonid Mikhlson thinks about the breakdown of the ship.
The builders who were supposed to assemble the station are now set to return to St. Petersburg, as well. The company FSUE Rosmorport, which owns the icebreakers that travelled to Antarctica to work on the Vostok Research Station, declined to comment on the situation.
Research put on ice
Lead researcher Alexey Yekaykin told Meduza that his team wasn’t expecting to be working at the new station yet anyway — the installation in Antarctica is expected to take several seasons: “Even if there is no new station, we still have somewhere to live, it’s just that with each year everything is decaying. In any case, we need a new station, now or in three years. But this [postponing the station’s construction] doesn’t affect us directly.”
Moreover, the coronavirus pandemic has prevented full-fledged work from taking place at the Vostok Research Station this year. Yekaykin told Meduza that air traffic from South Africa has effectively ground to a halt, making it much more difficult for researchers to get to Antarctica — usually, they fly through there, but now they’re sailing on ship from St. Petersburg.
“The season is cancelled. This year, the Russian Antarctic Expedition said that this [the Vostok expedition] is unrealistic and [asked us] not to take any abrupt actions. In general, on all national expeditions, there’s a robust reduction in work: it’s the same for the French and the British. Some have cancelled their work completely, some have reduced it — and all of this is linked to the coronavirus. We aren’t the only ones in this position,” Yekaykin explained.
Polar explorer Valery Lukin confirms that there were far fewer flights to Antarctica this year. Whether seasonal work will take place at the Vostok Research Station remains unclear, even to him. Lukin told Meduza that a ship called “Akademik Treshnikov” is bringing the station supplies — it left for Antarctica in November carrying 32 members of the expedition (who are meant to replace the current winterers), but has yet to reach its destination. The Russian Antarctic Expedition declined to comment on how this expedition is going.
Moreover, Sergey Bulat — the head of the cryobiology and astrobiology laboratory at the St. Petersburg Nuclear Physics Institute, which works with ice cores from Antarctica’s Lake Vostok, — told Meduza that other work at the Vostok Station had been cancelled even before the pandemic due to a lack of funding.
That said, some researchers are looking for other ways to continue their scientific studies even if they can’t make the journey to Antarctica. For example, as Alexey Yekaykin told Meduza, he has already asked one of his meteorologist colleagues wintering at the Vostok Station to take measurements on his behalf, so they can continue to study the snow’s isotopic composition and its current rate of accumulation. “It will be a pity if measurements aren’t taken this year, it really hurts, and the series [of observations] is so unique, it needs to be prolonged. The work isn’t very technically difficult, any person can do it without special training. And he will do it for me,” he concluded.
The researchers plan to return to Antarctica during the next expedition, which will take place in 2021 or later. The new station should be brought to Antarctica at the same time. “[Now] everything depends on the epidemiological situation,” underscored the head of the Russian Antarctic Expedition, Alexander Klepikov.
Translated and abridged by Eilish Hart