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115 A Lost Year

12 . 12 . 2020


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With its first research station established in 1956, the Russian Arctic and Antarctic Research Institute today operates eight year-round stations and four summer stations under its continuous Russian Antarctic Expedition. The most isolated of them all, Vostok Station, is also the second oldest, 1500 km away from the sea, at 3500 meters above sea level and only 1,301 kilometres short of the Geographic South Pole but near the Southern Pole of Inaccessibility and the South Geomagnetic Pole and at the southern Pole of Cold, with the lowest reliably measured natural temperature on Earth of −89.2 °C (−128.6 °F; 184.0 K), making it one of the optimal places to observe changes in the Earth's magnetosphere. Founded during the International Geophysical Year 1957, the station is now getting on in years and even the annual repairs and improvements can no longer hide the fact that the station is decaying. Because of the low temperatures at Vostok nine months of the year the station operates in full autonomy, without any possibility to access it either by air or land. The functioning of the station is totally dependent on the supplies delivered during summer season by the transport-sledge convoys.

The station consists today of four buildings mounted on piles in 1978 with renovations carried out from time to time, including frame structure change, mounting of heat-insulated panels, repairs to the living rooms and laboratories. However, throughout the years the station buildings become worn out, making the construction of the new wintering complex necessary. Since the fall of 2018, the issue of creating a new wintering complex for Vostok has been discussed at the government level. After financing was secured mainly through Novatek, Russia's second-largest natural gas producer, and the seventh-largest publicly-traded company globally by natural gas production volume, the new station was commissioned in April 2019 and construction was completed by the Pilot Plant of Building Structures located in Gatchina End of August 2020 with the intention to finish the reconstruction of the whole station in East Antarctica by 2024. The complex got dissembled into 133 block modules and loaded onto Nuclear lighter- and container carrier Sevmorput, the world’s only civilian nuclear-powered cargo ship, which left St. Petersburg on October 5th. On October 16 or 17, the speed of the Sevmorput got reduced to 6 to 7 knots. Following an unusual zick-zack-track along the coast of Africa, the ship stayed just outside the Angolan port of Luanda. Even though Rosatomflot, the operator of all Russian civil nuclear ships, kept silent regarding the incident, message got through Russia's Facebook clone Vkontakte, confirming that the ship has lost a propeller blade, of the only propeller used for propulsion. How, in principle, it is possible to break a blade designed to work in ice, being in clear water and open sea at a distance of 500 miles from the coast, where the average depth is 2 thousand meters after the ship just completed dock repairs in January and passed all certifications, nobody dares to explain.

Russian divers flew to Angola to assist in cutting off a second blade in hope of restoring the balance and Russian newspaper Kommersant now confirms that the divers’ repair attempts were unsuccessful and as the time-window for reaching the Antarctica summer season is about to close, it is decided to call Sevmorput home. In addition, this year the spring in Antarctica is warm, and the fast ice around the dedicated destination Progress Station is unreliable. This breakdown could delay the renewal of the only inland Russian scientific station in Antarctica, Vostok, for at least a year.

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