Australia in Antarctica

The Australasian Antarctic Expedition raising the flag at Commonwealth Bay, 1912.
The Australasian Antarctic Expedition raising the flag at Commonwealth Bay, 1912. (Photo: Frank Hurley)
The Aurora Australis in pack ice.The Airbus A319 in Antarctica.

Australia asserts sovereignty over 42 per cent of the Antarctic continent – the Australian Antarctic Territory.

Australia is an original signatory to the 1959 Antarctic Treaty, and is staunchly committed to maintaining its strength and effectiveness.

Much has changed over Australia’s century of involvement in Antarctica. Technology, logistical capabilities and international engagement in the continent have developed apace since Australia’s early Antarctic forays. But the challenge of operating in the world’s most extreme and unforgiving environment remains constant.

A viable Antarctic program requires the means to cross thousands of kilometres of the world’s stormiest seas, to navigate through Antarctica’s formidable sea ice barrier, and to live and work for extended periods on the coldest, driest and windiest continent on earth.

Australia’s first Antarctic expedition, the Australasian Antarctic Expedition of 1911–1914, was led by Sir Douglas Mawson aboard the wooden ship, SY Aurora. This was Australia’s first large-scale scientific program after Federation in 1901. Early Antarctic exploration was arduous and relied on hauling sledges with the assistance of dogs. Australia’s early explorers constructed two temporary wooden bases, one at Cape Denison (now Mawson’s Huts Historic Site) and a second on the Shackleton Ice Shelf. Mawson’s expedition used then ground-breaking intercontinental radio communications, enabling them to transmit meteorological reports back to Australia by relaying messages via Macquarie Island.

Australia established its first research stations in the subantarctic at Heard Island in 1947 and Macquarie Island in 1948. In 1954, under the leadership of Antarctic explorer and scientist Dr Philip Law, Australia chartered its first ice-capable ship and established the first year‑round and permanent research base on the Antarctic continent – Mawson station. This station is the longest continually operated station south of the Antarctic Circle. Davis station, established in 1957, was soon to follow and in 1959 Australia took over Wilkes station, built by the United States of America, on Clark Peninsula. Wilkes was succeeded by the nearby Casey station in 1969.

In the 1970s and 1980s, Australians completed some of the greatest land-based expeditions ever made in Antarctica, traversing several thousands of kilometres across East Antarctica. The use of dog sleds continued for decades as a significant means of transporting precious cargo such as food and other supplies and scientific samples. Over time, small aircraft, tractors and over-snow vehicles were used to increase the range and efficiency of Australia’s traverse operations.

A step-change in Australia’s Antarctic capabilities occurred with the introduction in the 2005–06 Budget of funding for the Hobart-Antarctic Airlink, providing the first ever intercontinental aviation link between Australia and Antarctica for the transport of personnel and small cargo. Australia today operates a network of aircraft landing sites in Antarctica, including the Wilkins glacial ice runway which supports the wheeled Airbus A319 intercontinental operations and skiways for ski‑equipped air operations between stations. Helicopters have succeeded older methods of transport, playing a critical role in ship‑to‑shore operations and in field activities in close proximity to stations.

Aviation today plays a critical role in sustaining Australia’s operations in Antarctica, but shipping remains the backbone of the Australian Antarctic program. The Aurora Australis came into service in 1990, and has since provided essential fuel and supplies to Australia’s Antarctic stations, personnel transfer and a capable platform for marine scientific research.

The next-generation successor to the Aurora Australis will again provide a step‑change in Australia’s Antarctic capabilities, providing greater icebreaking and cargo capacity, increased endurance, and a state-of-the-art suite of science capabilities. The new ship will sustain the next generation of Australian Antarctic science and operations in Antarctica.

Today’s Antarctic scientific research program has evolved dramatically from the curiosity‑driven individual endeavours of the past. Modern Antarctic science is big science: resource‑intensive, focused on questions of global significance, and incorporating multi-national collaborations driven by leading nations.

Australia’s future investment in Antarctic science will place it at the forefront of those nations, enabling major new research programs focused on key emerging challenges. These challenges include the quest for a million-year old ice core and its records of eras past, and the responsible management of krill, the cornerstone of the Southern Ocean’s ecosystem.

Advances in technology and innovation continue to bring opportunities and challenges for Antarctic operations. Improved safety and environmental performance, and rapid advances in areas such as Antarctic telecommunications, telemedicine, and energy generation and management, have enabled Australia to build on our past experience and improve the way we live and work in Antarctica.

Australia’s future in Antarctica will be defined by further evolution: leading shipping, aviation and overland traverse capabilities, a world-class science program focused on answering fundamental questions and advancing key national interests, and a continuing strong contribution to the peaceful international governance of Antarctica. The Australian Antarctic Strategy and Action Plan prepares Australia for a new era of opportunity.