Summer science in Antarctica

EXPANSE: The unique environment is a special perk of working in Antarctica. Picture: Justin Chambers (Australian Antarctic Division)

EXPANSE: The unique environment is a special perk of working in Antarctica. Picture: Justin Chambers (Australian Antarctic Division)

About 550 people, 100 scientists, 86 projects, 23 nationalities, over 190 institutions, two ski planes, four helicopters and a hell of a lot of planning. 

This is just some of what goes into operating for a single summer research season in one of the most difficult places to survive, let alone live, in the world. 

Antarctica. 

Howling winds, blinding sun, great expanses of disorienting white stretching away endlessly, Antarctica has captured the interest and imagination of scientists and explorers for generations. 

The Australian Antarctic Division (AAD) operates to support a range of scientific programs across the Antarctic and Subantarctic, which enrich and expand the knowledge of this great globe we call home. 

The summer research season kicked off in late October, as scientists, researchers, logistics staff and support crew travel to the great frozen continent to make the most of the long summer days.

Behind each science project is a battalion of operations and logistics staff, both in the division’s headquarters in Hobart and on the ground in Antarctica.

Imagine everything it takes to keep a small town operating; food, fuel, sewerage, power generation and built infrastructure. Now image making all of that happening in minus degrees, hampered by snow and ice in one of the world’s most remote corners. 

AAD operations manager Robb Clifton is tasked with planning and executing the logistics and operations of the program, in an incredibly challenging environment. 

“That involves the operations of our four research stations, all of our field operations all of our fixed wing and rotary wing aircraft all of our boating and shipping operations and it also involves planning the season, starting about 12 months out and then co-ordinating it in season,” he said. 

But planning can only get you so far in a world dominated by weather and environmental factors. 

“We’re trying to coordinate all those movements, link them up and make them happen and get the scientists to the right place and then overlaid is the environment, [where] we’re dealing with poor visibility, high winds, snow,” Mr Clifton said. 

Keeping people and equipment safe in a savagely cold environment takes significant forethought in itself. 

“The extremes of cold is an issue for us. We have special fuel with a waxing inhibitor in it to make sure we don’t get waxing in our fuel, there are cold limits below which we can’t operate aircraft and cold is also a significant risk in terms of frostbite and hypothermia, affecting how long people can be outside,” Mr Clifton said.

“We’ve got to have pretty conservative timing [for our outside operations].”

Casey Research Station leader Paul Ross arrived in Antarctica a fortnight ago, and has been struck by the volatility of the weather. 

In the 10 days I’ve been here I’ve learnt that it can change literally within 15 minutes. - Paul Ross

“In the 10 days I’ve been here I’ve learnt that it can change literally within 15 minutes,” he said. 

“I think one day last week the wind chill factor made it about -35, so it can get fairly cold and it can be a fairly inhospitable environment, but at the same time you do get some days like today where it’s absolutely beautiful.”

Increasingly, however, there is another challenge – one that might not immediately come to mind. Heat. 

“We deal with both ends where sometimes it’s too cold, and increasingly we’re also getting the other end where the ground isn’t solid enough, there’s not enough ice to do what we need,” Mr Clifton said. 

“If the ice itself comes above about -5 degrees we can’t operate our runway at Wilkins. We’ve had days recently ... in November, which have been in the positive, so one or two degree air temperature. 

“That’s pretty warm and we’re seeing a lot of melt. If we don’t have good enough sea ice for example we can’t land our ski planes, our vehicles can’t move through our track systems because they become so slushy.”

So how does one go about planning for the unpredictable?

Healthy contingency days are planned into all operations, and they have the most accurate weather information from the Bureau of Meteorology. 

But even so, the key skill for workers in the Antarctic is undoubtedly flexibility. 

“Things that we take for granted up here (in Australia), I mean people up here if their Jetstar flight is 20 minutes late they can get a bit cranky, in Antarctica your flight may be five days late and that’s pretty normal,” Mr Clifton said. 

“There’s no Bunnings or Coles, if something breaks or you don’t have enough you can’t just go and get it. You’ve got to look after what you’ve got, have enough spares and at times really improvise.”

Scientists also need to ensure they are prepared. Undertaking research in so inhospitable a place has its own unique challenges, as simple tasks like transport become exponentially harder. 

AAD chief scientist Gwen Fenton said the key is to plan well and plan early. 

“We assess projects about 18 months ahead of when they’re going to go south so there’s plenty of time for both us and the scientists to consider how they're going to do the science when they get there,” she said. 

“It’s so much more remote than anywhere else in many ways … The team you work with is really important, being very prepared and also really listening to the people with the expertise who have worked there before and our operational and support people because they will keep you safe.”

The main priorities for scientific research led by the AAD are in the areas of climate research, conservation and management of ecosystems and wildlife, human impacts and southern ocean fisheries. 

The research done in Antarctica is of global significance. 

“What happens in Antarctica does have an influence through particularly the world’s oceans, it drives the ocean currents of the world … that has a big influence on weather and climate,” Dr Fenton said.

“Then there's also the unique qualities of the place itself so the iconic animals; the penguins, the whales, the seals, everything you think of as Antarctica.”

These also form large part of the research agenda, contributing to management and conservation and fisheries management. 

This season will see a project measuring water mass near Totten Glacier, which is sinking and believed to be melting from underneath; and a project using aerial technology to map the land surface beneath the ice, giving a glimpse of the continent’s topography and geology. 

The success of these mammoth collaborative projects relies on having healthy and happy staff.

“We spend a lot of time selecting the right people,” Mr Clifton said. 

“We’re [also] really cognisant that for a relatively small, isolated community who are working hard, doing everything we can to keep everyone happy, content and safe is such a big enabler for us to get the job done.”

One might think recreational activities on the ice would be slim, but there is everything from skiing, to musical instruments, movies, books, wood and metal working and more. 

For scientists and operations staff alike, undoubtedly one of the biggest perks of the job is, quite simply, you are in Antarctica. 

“The space is incredible, it’s like nothing I’ve seen before,” Mr Ross said, struck by the environment that greeted him on arrival. 

It is a sentiment echoed across the work force. 

It’s like living in a David Attenborough documentary. - Robb Clifton

“Definitely one of the big perks … is just being in such an amazing place. The natural environment and the wildlife and the wildness of it,” Mr Clifton said. 

“[Also] to be a part of that science I find really exciting. It’s like living in a David Attenborough documentary.”

The Examiner

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