1301.0 - Year Book Australia, 2007  
ARCHIVED ISSUE Released at 11:30 AM (CANBERRA TIME) 24/01/2007   
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Contents >> Antarctica - in from the cold


Image: Antarctica - in from the cold

Professor Michael Stoddart
Professor Michael Stoddart, DSc, has been Chief Scientist in the Australian Government Antarctic Division, Department of the Environmental and Heritage since 1998. Previously an academic and university Deputy Vice-Chancellor, he was trained as a population dynamicist before developing a lifelong interest in olfactory physiology and ecology.

'We stumble and struggle through the Stygian gloom; the merciless blast - an incubus of vengeance - stabs, buffets and freezes; the stinging drift blinds and chokes.' (The home of the blizzard: being the story of the Australasian Antarctic Expedition 1911-1914, Douglas Mawson, 1915).
    A blizzard, 1913 - Frank Hurley, courtesy National Library of Australia
    A blizzard, 1913 - Frank Hurley, courtesy National Library of Australia.

    With these graphic words Sir Douglas Mawson described his sojourn at Commonwealth Bay during his epic 1911-1914 expedition. His heroic efforts marked the start of a long and proud history of Australian-led scientific exploration of the southern continent. Over the years Australia’s reasons for maintaining its Antarctic presence have changed from exploration and sovereignty to understanding the physical and biological characteristics of Antarctica. Drawing its success from the blending of the spirit of those who crave to confront their own incubi with scientific and engineering ingenuity, Australia’s Antarctic programme is acknowledged as one of the world’s best. Our knowledge of the environment and the vagaries of the weather are far better known, and we have access today to materials and support systems which were unknown to Sir Douglas and which would have saved him from much travail. Our stations are comfortable and our operations safe. Our food is of a high standard, our vehicles designed to withstand the harsh Antarctic terrain, and our medical facilities on a par with those in many an Australian country town. As we enter the International Polar Year (IPY) 2007-2008 - a year when the eyes of the world will be upon the Earth’s Polar regions - it is timely to reflect upon Antarctica and its mysteries, and on the lives of the men and women who bring life to Australia’s Antarctic programme.

    Australia owns and operates three stations on the continent of Antarctica, at Casey (66 degrees 17 minutes (6617') south; 11032' east) and 3,422 kilometres (km) from Hobart, Tasmania; Davis (6835' south; 7758' east) 4,810 km and Mawson (6736' south; 6252' east) 5,444 km - though the latter is about 3,200 km, as a crow might fly, from where Sir Douglas built his huts. In addition Australia operates a sub-Antarctic station on Macquarie Island (5430' south; 15857' east), 1,542 km south south-east from Hobart. All stations are open for business twelve months a year. From time to time, and as research needs dictate, temporary field camps and bases are established in other locations, operating from one to many field seasons. They can be on the coast, or deep inland on the ice cap. In all, Australia’s Antarctic Territory covers 5.9 million square kilometres (sq km) - 42% of Antarctica; equivalent to nearly 80% of the size of Australia itself. This is a huge swathe of the Earth’s surface and a big management responsibility for a small nation. What is this place like, which plays such a strong role in Australia’s psyche?


    Antarctica’s defining feature is the cold, but it was not always so. Until about 130 million years ago Antarctica was nestled in the embrace of the southern continents - Africa, South America, India, Australia and New Zealand - and vegetation flourished. Relatives of Huon and celery-top pine, man fern, the handsome Richea, and the southern beech flourished in its temperate climate. But the demise of the great southern continent, Gondwana, put an end to such luxuriance. As the continents started their northerly journeys Antarctica stayed roughly where it was, gyrating around the south pole. Gradually a sizeable sea passage opened up all around and a mighty current became established. Flowing from west to east with a flow equal to 20 times the volume of Sydney harbour every minute, the Antarctic Circumpolar Current isolated the continent and snow began to lie year round. Antarctica started to become cold. By about 37 million years ago all but the hardiest form of vegetation had vanished and ice covered all the land. The white colour of the ice and snow reflected heat back into the atmosphere and it became colder and colder. The coldest air temperature ever recorded on Earth is -89.2 degrees Celsius (C) at Vostok station in July 1983.

    Today Antarctica’s ice sheet measures, on average, 2,500 metres (m) thick, depressing the Earth’s crust sometimes to well-below sea level. Its maximum thickness is about 4,800 m. It is estimated that almost 75% of the Earth’s fresh water is bound up in it. Sea ice in the vast embayments of the Weddell and Ross Seas does not melt during summer, and neither do the glacier tongues which push their way out to sea. So complete is the continent’s ice cover that only about 1% of its coastline, and precious little of its interior, is ice-free. Some countries build their stations on ice shelves or on the ice cap in the interior with the consequence that they move with the slow flow of the ice, but Casey, Davis and Mawson are built on bare rock.

    Every winter the sea around Antarctica freezes, increasing from about 3 million sq km in February to about 19 million sq km in September. It is constantly on the move, jostling and moving and throwing up huge piles of rafted slabs making it hard for all but powerful icebreakers to penetrate. Measuring a meter or more thick its interstices are riddled with a labyrinth of brine channels; tiny tubes in which live a myriad of microscopic animals and plants. Weddell seals make breathing holes in it, wearing out their teeth in the process. Antarctic krill feed on the rich blooms of algae which inhabit its underside and interior. Emperor penguins shuffle and slide their way across tens of kilometres of it on their way to the water’s edge, and a well-earned feed. In summer the sea ice is mostly all gone and the surface waters are richer with microscopic life than most places on Earth. But the summer is short and the animals and plants which have adapted to live in partnership with the ice have specialised life-styles.

    Animals and plants which live in Antarctica and in its surrounding waters must be able to survive in conditions in which the air temperature is significantly below zero all year round. Marine organisms fare a little better with sea water temperatures of -1.8C under the ice. Biodiversity is low. On land there are between 200 and 300 species of lichens and about 80 species of moss, several hundred species of non-marine algae, and many fungi and bacteria. There are no flowering plants. The mosses provide homes to a very small number of invertebrates. The marine environment is different for although it is driven by the cycle of sea ice it is, nevertheless, somewhat buffered from the worst extremes of the weather. Mammals and birds are equipped with thick layers of feathers and/or blubber to keep out the cold and fish have a kind of anti-freeze in their blood. Sea-stars and other invertebrates have adopted brooding as a way of giving their young the best possible start in life. Other species are long-lived and grow to a large body size storing as much energy for future lean times. But some animal groups are remarkably abundant in Antarctic waters. No-one knows why but over one-half of all known species of sea-spiders occur in Antarctica, and certain types of fishes are found only in the south of the Southern Ocean. True crabs, of the kind which occur on sea-shores around Australia, are missing from Antarctica.

    Adaptation is seen also in life history strategies of terrestrial animals. Some life-history adaptations are bizarre and among the most is that of the emperor penguin. This large bird - an adult male can weigh over 40 kilograms (kg) - lays its eggs before the onset of the Antarctic winter. It is up to the males to incubate the egg on the tops of their feet for the worst months of the year until spring, when the females return and take over the care of the newly hatched chicks. During the winter they lose 50% of their body weight and are desperate for food. To reach the sea they must trek many kilometres. But when they reach the ocean edge, the teeming food stocks makes the long journey worthwhile.

    Little is known about Antarctica’s geology because we can study only the tips of the mountain ranges which project above the ice cap. Only an area less than half the size of Tasmania is visible. Most of the rocks lie some kilometres below the surface, protected from the eroding influences of wind, rain and sun. The Trans-Antarctic mountains which snake northwards and westwards along the Antarctic Peninsula from the south pole to the Andes of South America and the Rockies of North America, and northwards and eastwards to the edge of the Ross Sea are part of the ancient mountain chain which also includes Tasmania’s mountains and the Great Dividing Range. In Antarctica we can find glimpses of the early structure of our land, before our harsh climate took its toll and our surface eroded away. Rocks of almost four billion years old are known in Antarctica allowing examination of some of the oldest rocks on Earth. Few minerals have been discovered though iron ore and coal are in great abundance in the Prince Charles Mountains in the Australian Antarctic Territory, and manganese nodules are abundant in the waters off shore. Of oil and gold, we know little. Oil comes from relatively young rocks and Antarctica is essentially an ancient continent.

    Antarctica’s cold and severe weather can have wider global significance. One example is how strong offshore winds and sea ice formation affect the world’s ocean circulation. As the cold wind screams northwards down from the high Antarctic plateau and out to sea it freezes the surface of the water. The ice so formed is immediately scoured off by the wind and can be blown 40 km in a day. New ice forms immediately behind it and is itself blown away, and so the cycle continues. In this manner the surface of the water is kept ice-free but as ice is made only from fresh water the water left behind is extremely salty and very dense. Falling to the bottom of the ocean this cold, dense water gradually flows northwards. Some of it travels great distances into the northern hemisphere before rising to bring nutrients and oxygen to the upper waters. The circulation of the earth’s oceans owe much to the temperature and salinity of the waters surrounding the Antarctic and the Arctic but as the climate of the Arctic is changing so fast, and the extent of Arctic ice is reducing (by 2.6% per decade as measured by satellite over the past 25 years), the northern part of the ocean conveyor belt pump is showing signs of failing. The warm currents which bathe the western part of Europe keep it largely ice free and if the currents should falter the ports of Rotterdam, Harwich and Hamburg could again become ice-bound for much of the year, as palaeo-climatologists have shown has happened in the past.

    As far as we can tell, Antarctica is not warming up in the same way as is the Arctic. There is one ocean ‘hotspot’ lying to the west of the Antarctic Peninsula which caused the collapse of the Larsen B ice-shelf in February 2003, and is affecting other ice-shelves on the Peninsula, but the best evidence is that eastern Antarctica remains largely unchanged. Although ice-shelves are floating bodies and do not contribute to any rise in sea level should they melt, the same is not true for the ice sitting on the continent. Should it melt, the ice covering Antarctica would bring about a rise in global sea level of more than 60 m, annihilating most of the world’s big cities.

    Weddell seal, photograph  Michael Stoddart.Weddell seal, photograph Michael Stoddart.


    What’s it like to live and work in Antarctica? Unlike in Sir Douglas’ time, living at an Australian station in Antarctica is now very comfortable. During winter the maintenance staff, and the few hardy scientists who operate instruments and take measurements, live in well-appointed living quarters. Each person has a single room with a bed, desk, storage space, a telephone and an Internet connection. Each two or three rooms share a bathroom, but water remains a problem. Despite being surrounded by 70% of the Earth’s freshwater, there is no liquid water available in Antarctica for human use. We must melt ice, or use a reverse osmosis process to turn salty water into fresh and then pump liquid drinking water into huge tanks kept in warm buildings. The flow to bathrooms and kitchens must be kept ice-free through heated pipes, and water must be used most sparingly.

    Stations are heated with electricity generated by diesel generators. At Mawson station the Australian Government Antarctic Division recently installed two 300 mega watt wind turbines, driven by the predictable and strong katabatic winds. Their use trims the fuel use by about 30%, and the excess electricity they generate is being used to make hydrogen gas by hydrolysis of water, for use in vehicles and for powering field camps.

    The kitchens of our stations are most important places, for much interest is shown in their products during the long dark days of winter. Hydroponic units at each station produce over 100kg annually of lettuce, rocket, tomatoes and cucumbers, providing welcome relief from a diet of frozen, tinned and dried food. Chefs on station are creative people whose skills are deeply valued by all who spend time there. They get one day off each week, when an element of uncertainty creeps into the menu for the day!

    While the kitchens cater for the inner person, the outer person is looked after with a range of activities on station from gymnasia, to artificial climbing walls, to makeshift volleyball courts. Depending on what main station activities are occurring the opportunity exists for most staff to get off the station from time to time. Such trips are the stuff of memories as they put people closer to meeting their personal challenges than when they are on station. Such recreational activities do not take place if the weather forecast is poor, and will only occur if all members of the party have received adequate training in field-craft and survival skills. Properly kitted out, and with Global Positioning System skills and good maps, enough food and water plus some previous experience in the party, most expeditioners experience Antarctica in a rather special way. Situated in the hinterland behind our stations, and sometimes many kilometres distant from them, are field huts to where such recreational trips usually go. Here they will find four or six bunks with down sleeping bags, a gas heater, stove, emergency dried food and a radio for maintaining contact with the station - and views to die for! The comments left behind in the visitors’ books attest to the role these short trips away from station play in helping people through the long months of separation from loved ones.

    In the event of medical emergencies each station has a well-equipped surgery and a doctor trained in emergency surgery and dentistry. Should an operation involving anaesthesia be necessary, and they are at the rate of about one every second year, station staff are pressed into service as lay surgical assistants to assist the Antarctic medical practitioner in his or her work. They are trained for these roles before they travel south, just as others are trained as firemen, postmasters, electoral returning officers, special constables, hairdressers, boating officers, rescue squads, deputy coroners and other roles. Should an emergency strike the station all the services we take for granted in our cities and towns must be delivered by the 15-20 people who live there. Recognising that emergencies do occur, regardless of whatever precautions have been taken, emergency power units, stores of food able to last for twelve months, clothing stores, communications equipment, stores of tents and stocks of a myriad other things which may be needed, are maintained in containers situated some distance from the station buildings. All on station are trained in what they should do if an evacuation of the station were necessary.

    During summer the population of Australia’s three stations rises dramatically as the first voyages of the season bring in groups of tradespeople who will work on special building or maintenance tasks, others who work on environmental and heritage projects, specialised technicians in a range of fields, aircraft engineers, dive masters, field craft specialists and the scientists they support. About 200 scientists and research assistants travel south each year to Australia’s Antarctic stations and Macquarie Island. The research they conduct must support Australia’s strategic requirements for its Antarctic programme and has been rigorously screened and vetted by committees of their peers for scientific merit. Not all work for the Australian Government Antarctic Division in Kingston (Tasmania) for about a half work for universities and research organisations. Several come from overseas. Many graduate students take part in the programme and a substantial proportion acquire a taste for research in Antarctica which remains with them throughout their research lives. When they need specialist assistance, such as in the use of a boat, a tracked vehicle, a skidoo, a quad bike, or helicopter to reach distant places, experienced field guides (and pilots!) are available to train them to use the equipment themselves or to accompany them into the field. Small field camps can be established in remote locations, should their research require it. One thing is very clear; without close teamwork the conduct of science in Antarctica is simply not possible.

    Camp site with rocky edge in background, Australasian Antarctic Expedition, 1911–14, photograph from Sir Douglas Mawson collection, courtesy National Library of Australia (left). Field camp – photography by Frederique Olivier 2006  (right).
    Camp site with rocky edge in background, Australasian Antarctic Expedition, 1911–14, photograph from Sir Douglas Mawson collection, courtesy National Library of Australia (left). Field camp – photography by Frederique Olivier, Australian Government Antarctic Division Commonwealth of Australia 2006 (right).


    Australia’s programme of research in Antarctica and the Southern Ocean is tightly focused on fields of study which are of strategic importance to the work of the Government department of which it is a part - the Department of the Environment and Heritage. Broadly speaking these are environmental protection, marine ecosystem sustainability, and understanding the role of Antarctica in the Earth’s climate system. The broader context for scientific research in Antarctica is that the continent, by international agreement, is set aside for scientific research and is not to be used for mining, the storage of radioactive waste materials, or any military activity. The preamble to the Antarctic Treaty, to which Australia acceded in 1959, recognises that Antarctica 'shall not become the scene or object of international discord' and that cooperative scientific research, coupled with a sharing of scientific data, is to be promoted. As a result, scientific research in Antarctica is characterised by scientists working together and pooling their intellectual and often their logistical resources.

    Australia’s scientific programme consists of about 130 projects each year covering fields as diverse as glaciology, atmospheric physics, marine and terrestrial biology, and genetics and all contributing to strategically important objectives. There are scientists examining the nature of the middle and upper atmosphere; the structure and movement of ice on land and sea including the processes of iceberg calving; the habitats and biology of seals, penguins and other animals; the responses of marine and terrestrial organisms to increasing ultra-violet light; the movement of the Earth’s crust underneath the ice; the effects of pollution run-off from long-abandoned waste tips on the marine environment, and much more. Medical research includes the psychological and physiological effects of isolation. Not all Australia’s Antarctic research is conducted in the field for the databases accumulated over the years are a mother lode for climate and ecosystem modellers.

    Much of our research goes towards providing scientific advice to a number of international agreements to which Australia is signatory, including the Antarctic Treaty itself and associated instruments - the Convention for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (CCAMLR), the International Whaling Commission and the Agreement on the Conservation of Albatrosses and Petrels - as well as to Australia’s growing climate change agenda. While many data are collected at sea we are increasingly putting together data from land-based studies with marine to help us predict what Antarctica and the Southern Ocean will be like in the future.

    Adelie penguins, photograph by Doug Thost,  Australian Government Antarctic Division  Commonwealth of Australia 2006.Adelie penguins, photograph by Doug Thost, Australian Government Antarctic Division Commonwealth of Australia 2006.


    And what of the future? Antarctica is facing change today as never before in human history - though we now know that it is no stranger to climate and other change on a longer scale. Climate change is being felt more keenly in polar regions than in other parts of the Earth and this is causing some change in the amount of ice on the Antarctic Peninsula. Most ice-shelves fringing the Antarctic Peninsula are showing some signs of decline. Overall this is quite a small proportion of Antarctica’s total ice mass but the trend is worrying. At the same time an increasing number of tourists want to visit Antarctica and have the financial means so to do. In 2006-07 it is estimated that 30,000 tourists will visit Antarctica - mainly to the Antarctic Peninsula - in ships which are sometimes not designed to withstand ice-laden waters (see the article Antarctic tourism in the Tourism chapter). What will happen if there is an accident? Who will come to the rescue? Who will pay for the environmental clean-up necessitated by an oil spill? How can we ensure that tourists and expeditioners alike keep alien organisms out of Antarctica? Illegal fishers relentlessly pursue the dwindling stocks of fish in the waters around the continent, despite international condemnation from the parties to CCAMLR, and the fisheries protection activities of the Australian Government (see the article Fishing in Australia's Antarctic waters in the Forestry and fishing chapter). It is likely that increasing attention will be focused on harvesting Antarctic krill in the future as the world looks for new sources of animal protein for feeding a burgeoning aquaculture industry, and we must not fail to protect this creature which sits at the heart of Antarctica’s marine ecosystem. Finally, the high level of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is causing the ocean to become less alkaline resulting in significant shell deformations in the tiny organisms which draw calcium carbonate out of the water, and are the starting point in the ocean’s food web. Without them, the ocean withers.

    The global importance of Antarctic research will increase as the future unfolds, and as we come to understand that Antarctica is no longer a far distant curiosity at the end of the Earth but is a powerful driver of global ocean circulation and heat exchange and as we realise that these things have much to do with the quality of our lives at home. If it changes, so too will our lives.

    But Antarctica will forever retain its ability to bemuse and bedazzle, screaming and tearing at you one moment, seductively wooing you the next. As Dr Ingrid McGaughey aptly put it in 2001 in an account of her year in Antarctica:

    'Nothing quite prepares you for her savage beauty - the relentless buffeting and swirling grey of blizzards, sunshine sparkling through on hard-scalloped ice as far as the eye can see, huge sculpted windscours, disguised crevices (sic) of rich blues, purples and finally inky-black waiting to trap the unwary, slashes of vibrant blues through the white of ice cliffs or the rich hues in Colbeck bergs. More hidden is her whimsical side - delicate patterns in the forming sea ice, the inquisitiveness of the Emperor penguins, trails of bubbles captured deep in the frozen meltlakes, the magical sounds of seals singing under the ice, vivid green auroras prancing across the sky, the delicate blush of lengthy twilights around midwinter. These are precious memories.' (Ingrid on Ice. My year in Antarctica, p.186).

    In a figurative sense Sir Douglas’ ‘stygian gloom’ has been dispelled. With knowledge about Antarctica has come understanding and we now know the part it plays in helping maintain the planet Earth as a suitable place for human existence. But the crust of knowledge remains very thin. The International Council for Science and the World Meteorological Organization, the co-sponsors of the IPY, hope that there will be a new burst of knowledge about the Earth’s polar regions, just as there was 50 years ago with the International Geophysical Year, and that this new understanding will underpin research activities for decades to come. The Parties to the Antarctic Treaty, meeting in Edinburgh in June 2006, passed a Declaration on the IPY supporting the work of the 60,000 scientists who are expected to participate. Australia will be playing its part through coordination of major international climate and marine biodiversity studies in Antarctica.

    In 2007 Australia will inaugurate a jet-aircraft link between Hobart and Casey to transport people quickly and comfortably to Antarctica. The journey will take five hours compared with the present minimum of eight or nine days by sea. We have recently started using small fixed-wing aircraft to transport people from one station to another, and into the deep field for research, lifting Australia’s Antarctic programme into the 21st century. Sir Douglas would hardly recognise today’s programme, but we think he would be proud of the skills and ingenuity of his many successors who, working together, have crafted a programme of which all Australians can be proud.

    Mawson station, photograph by Frederique Olivier, Australian Government Antarctic Division  Commonwealth of Australia 2006Mawson station, photograph by Frederique Olivier, Australian Government Antarctic Division Commonwealth of Australia 2006.


    Australian Government Antarctic Division web site gives comprehensive information on all aspects of Australia’s Antarctic programme, including daily web-cam pictures from stations: <http://www.agad.gov.au>
    Craven M, Carsey F, Behar A, Matthews J, Brand R, Elcheikh A, Hall S, Treverrow A (January 2005) Borehole imagery of meteoric and marine ice layers in the Amery Ice Shelf, East Antarctica. Journal of Glaciology vol. 51, no. 172 pp. 75-84, International Glaciological Society
    Curran MAJ, van Ommen TD, Morgan VI, Phillips KL, & Palmer AS (14 November 2003) 'Ice Core Evidence for Antarctic Sea Ice Decline Since the 1950s', Science vol. 302, no. 5648, pp. 1203-1206
    Frenot Y, Chown SL, Whinam J, Selkirk PM, Convey P, Skotnicki M, & Bergstrom DM (February 2005) 'Biological invasions in the Antarctic: extent, impacts and implications', Biological Reviews vol. 80, issue 01, pp. 45-72, Cambridge University Press
    Mawson D, (1915) The home of the blizzard: being the story of the Australasian Antarctic Expedition 1911-1914, 2 vols, William Heinemann, London
    McGaughey I, (2001) Ingrid on Ice. My year in Antarctica, Lovett Art press, Cygnet, Tasmania
    Smetaček V, & Nicol S (15 September 2005) 'Polar ocean ecosystems in a changing world', Nature vol. 437, pp. 362-368, Nature Publishing Group
    Snape I, Riddle MJ, Filer DM, Williams PJ (October 2003) 'Contaminants in freezing ground and associated ecosystems: key issues at the beginning of the new millennium', Polar Record vol. 39, issue 04, pp. 291-300, Cambridge University Press
    Warner RC, Budd WF (1998) 'Modelling the long-term response of the Antarctic ice sheet to global warming', Annals of Glaciology vol. 27, pp. 161-167, International Glaciological Society

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