Australia's Antarctic Program

Scientists drilling for an ice core at Aurora Basin.
Through the International Partnership in Ice Core Sciences (IPICS), Australia has contributed to an array of 2000 year old ice cores across Antarctica. (Photo: Tony Fleming)
A krill.Dr Natalie Schmitt holding a whale biopsy sample during the six week Australia-New Zealand Antarctic Ecosystem Voyage in 2015.Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull looking at a krill specimen at the Australian Antarctic Division.Map showing Australia and the Australian Antarctic Territory.

The Department of the Environment, through its Australian Antarctic Division, is responsible for leading, coordinating and delivering the Australian Antarctic program and administering the Australian Antarctic Territory and, in the subantarctic, the Territory of Heard Island and McDonald Islands. The program is focused on conducting world-class science of critical national importance and global significance that delivers on Australian Antarctic policy and operational priorities.

The Australian Antarctic program is highly collaborative – comprising partnerships across government and with more than 150 national and international research institutions. Together, these partnerships contribute to advancing Australia’s interests in Antarctica and the subantarctic region. Australia also works with other countries’ Antarctic programs to run joint international scientific and logistical support operations.

The operational and logistical building blocks of the Australian Antarctic program are highly capable people, our four research stations, multipurpose icebreaker, aviation and field support capabilities. Australia currently has three permanent research stations on the Antarctic continent, Casey, Davis and Mawson, as well as a research station on Macquarie Island in the subantarctic. The Australian Antarctic Division manages and implements combined sea, air and continental transport capabilities to undertake wide-ranging marine, ice and aviation‑based research activities, personnel transfer and station resupply and waste removal. Personnel include scientists and medical doctors, tradespeople to run and maintain our stations, logistics specialists to resupply our stations by ship, aviation teams to support our varied aviation needs, and policy and communications experts. The Australian Antarctic Division’s headquarters in Hobart is the foundation stone of Tasmania’s role as a gateway for Antarctic science and logistics.

Antarctica plays a central role in the global weather and climate system. The Southern Ocean is the engine room for global weather and climate and has far reaching influence on oceanic and atmospheric circulation. Antarctica teaches us about our past and current climate, and informs us of the nature, extent and consequences of future climate change. The science we conduct in Antarctica also provides the essential evidence through which we can ensure a resilient environment to our south through responsible international environmental stewardship of the region.

Antarctic science, aligned with our policy interests and integrated with our operational capabilities, is at the heart of the Australian Antarctic program. Australian and international scientists participate in the inclusive program to deliver world-class scientific research consistent with Australia’s Antarctic science strategic priorities. Australian Antarctic science focuses the research effort to address the most pressing of our science needs, particularly around the role of Antarctica in the global climate system, the need to understand and conserve Antarctica’s unique life forms, and to protect the Antarctic environment and support sound environmental stewardship in the region, with a particular focus on fisheries.

With the scientific and operational capability delivered through this Australian Antarctic Strategy and the Action Plan, Australia will be well placed to address the major science challenges of the next few decades. Among these are the challenges of playing a leading role in sourcing the globe’s oldest ice (greater than 1 million years of age), exploring the unknown parts of the ocean below the sea ice and ice shelves, learning how a warming and acidifying ocean will affect Australia, and ensuring we can support the conservation and ecosystem-based management of Antarctic krill.

Million Year Ice Core

Antarctic ice cores provide crucial information on past climate and climate processes that is key to understanding climate and predicting future change. Chemical constituents in the ice cores, such as carbon dioxide, sulfur, iron and ash, tell scientists about past temperature, sea ice extent, volcanic events and human activity, among other things.

Through the International Partnership in Ice Core Sciences Australia has contributed to an array of 2000 year-old ice cores across Antarctica. Some of these have helped identify important climate linkages between Australia and Antarctica.

The most ambitious priority for ice core science is to recover a core that extends to well over a million years ago – a time in Earth’s history when ice age cycles shifted their pacing from 41 000 years’ length to 100 000 years' length. We don’t know what caused this shift. An ice core covering this period would allow us to extract a direct record of carbon dioxide and see what role, if any, it may have played.

Data collected from Australia’s recent 2000 year-old ice core drilling program at Aurora Basin in East Antarctica, as well as geophysical surveys across the region, are helping narrow the likely location of ice thick enough to contain a one million year climate record.


Krill

Krill are the keystone species of the Antarctic ecosystem and the staple diet of many animals, including seals, whales, fish, squid, penguins and flying seabirds. Antarctic krill (Euphausia superba) are the dominant krill species found in Antarctic waters and the main species targeted by krill fishers. Through the Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources, Australia and other Member states, are developing a krill management system, to enable sustainable harvesting and ensure large predators can continue to rely on krill as their main food source. This system enables the Commission to set and regularly review and revise precautionary catch limits based on the best available science. The Commission’s approach to managing the krill fishery is to minimise the impact on the ecosystem while ensuring a sustainable fishery in the long term.

Australian Antarctic scientists conduct world-leading research on krill reproduction, development and physiology, and the response of krill to the effects of climate change on their environment. The Australian Antarctic Division’s krill research aquarium plays a key role in this research, allowing scientists to maintain and work with both wild and captive-bred krill. This research informs krill fishery management decisions in the Commission.