West Germany is celebrating the new year of 1981 in a very special way: It is taking a giant step toward joining the 13-member -- perhaps soon to be 14-member Antarctic Club. A team of about 40 scientists and technicians is to land any day now on the shelf ice in the Weddell Sea to man West Germany's first permanent Antarctic research station.
With this move West Germany is resuming the polar research that pre-war Germany excelled at. World War II interrupted a major German Schwabenland expedition in 1938-39. And in the first decades of the century German geologist and explorer Alfred Wegener -- whom the new research station will be named after -- was the father of the currently favored theory of continental drift.
The Wegener Station -- along with West Germany's newly established Polar Research Institute at Bremerhaven and the polar research vessel now projected for completion by the end of 1982 -- should entitle Bonn to graduate from nonvoting to voting status as a 1978 signatory of the 1959 Antarctic Treaty.
Exactly when this recognition might come, however, depends on acceptance of the West German research as "permanent" by the current voting members of the Antarctic Club: the American and Soviet superpowers, the Antarctic neighbors of Argentina, Chile, South Africa, Australia, and New Zealand, and the traditional polar explorer, Norway, as well Japan, Belgium, France, Great Britain, and Poland.
At the new Wegener Station -- which is located 20 kilometers (12 miles) inland at 77 degrees south and 50 degrees west on a sheet of ice the size of Sweden and an estimated 500 meters thick -- the researchers will measure and analyze the dynamics of ice building and melting.
They are arriving in the summer; temperatures have now warmed up to minus 30 degrees F., and the huge ice floes that wreathe the "sixth continent" in winter are sufficiently dispersed for the Norwegian chartered ship Polarsirkel to get through to the edge of the shelf ice. They will stay until the end of February, and five technicians will stay on to monitor instruments over the south polar winter.
While there, the researchers will live and work in two connected underground pipes 50 meters long and eight meters in diameter, buried two meters in the snow. This station is on a glacier that is moving toward the sea, but it should survive for eight years before breaking off of the shelf ice.
The measurements of the Wegener Station will be supplemented by ice readings made by mobile teams, and also by oceanographic explorations. The aim of the latter is to map the distribution of Arctic birds as well as to record basic data for the seabed, and for seals, fish and krill.
Next summer a West German expedition intends to look at the effect of the south polar region on world climate and the circulation of Antarctic water masses and air, to measure the earth's magnetic field, and to make astronomical observations in the clear polar atmosphere.
From all the detailed findings West German scientists would like to begin formulation of an integrated concept of the complex interrelationships of sea, ice, and atmosphere, and of the whole biological and physical environment. They would like to form hypotheses as well about the geological history of the Antarctic.