Mountains unearthed in the wild heart of Antarctica
Photo: Mark McLean and Chris Wilson, School of Earth Sciences, University of Melbourne
Using rudimentary gravity instruments, the Gamburtsev subglacial mountain range and its overlying ice dome, the size of a small country, were discovered by the Third Soviet Antarctic Expedition during its International Geophysical Year traverse of East Antarctica in 1958. The topographic nature and location of the foothills of these subglacial mountains (right) were subsequently identified during Australia's 2002-03 Prince Charles Mountains Expedition of Germany and Australia (PCMEGA). During the 2007-09 International Polar Year, a team of scientists from around the world sought to expand this knowledge using a host of hi-tech instruments, including ice-penetrating radar, gravimeters, magnetometers, seismometers, lasers and GPS, revealing a jagged landscape the size of the European Alps.
'AGAP', Antarctica's Gamburtsev Province, was a multinational collaborative project involving many agencies; primarily the Australian Antarctic Division, British Antarctic Survey (BAS), United States Antarctic Program, Chinese National Antarctic Research Expedition (CHINARE), Germany's Alfred Wegener Institute (AWI) and the Japanese Antarctic Research Expedition. To combat the complexities of aerial surveying over 20 per cent of East Antarctica in a single season, two temporary airfields were established on the flanks of Dome A: AGAP South, operated by the United States, and the Australian-run AGAP North. From these bases Twin Otter aircraft, racked to the wingtips with sensors and computers, flew 120 000 linear kilometres of survey lines over the buried range – a distance of three times around the Earth.
Photo: Michael Studinger, Columbia University
Learning of the program in July 2008, I was immediately captured by the adventurous nature of AGAP and agreed to lead the Australian field component. Many months of planning and preparation, including input from the Antarctic Division's operations, polar medicine, engineering, communications, aviation and multimedia departments, gave shape to AGAP North. With 10 aircraft involved in the broader operations, the aviation component of AGAP North was tailor-made for Senior Aviation Ground Support Officer, Sharon Labudda, a veteran of eight Antarctic seasons. Also indispensable was our fix-anything mechanic, Scott Adam, who had just completed a winter at Davis station. The fourth member of our operations team was Catrin Thomas from BAS. An experienced field guide and Jill-of-all-trades, she was also the link to BAS's six-strong team of pilots, air mechanic, engineer and geophysicists.
Following three weeks of final preparations at Davis, supported by the innovative team of expeditioners stationed there, our two utility planes and their crews arrived from across Antarctica – a BAS Twin Otter and an AWI Basler. Call-signed FAZ and Polar 5, these proven Antarctic aircraft began ferrying personnel and almost 10 tonnes of food and equipment at the end of November to our staging camp at the scenic Grove Mountains, equidistant between Davis and AGAP North. Catrin, assisted by team members from Davis, managed this hellishly windy camp – used as a refuel stop, ferry station and acclimatisation camp – for two weeks, as we headed south.
Our temporary camp erected, we wasted no time in surveying a skiway site that Sharon would groom in preparation for the multitude of aircraft that were due to arrive. Slowly, we built a basic yet functional aerodrome and camp, which comfortably accommodated up to 12 people and enabled us to refuel planes, monitor their flights, house science stations, operate and tune vehicles and generators, and maintain communication with the outside world. By December 18 we were fully operational and began surveying the Gamburtsev Mountains that lay frozen beneath our camp.
December 31 saw the CHINARE tractor traverse grace our humble camp. Originating from ZhongShan, the traverse was en route to the summit of Dome Argus to build a summer base, and it was an astonishing sight to see 28 expeditioners and over 500 tonnes of machinery and equipment rumble to a halt. There were brief tours of our respective operations and an eye cast over the airdrop waste we had cached so far; the Chinese would collect this load on their return for shipping back to Fremantle. This brief but exciting visit typified the spirit of international cooperation common across both government and non-government operations in Antarctica.
A week later AGAP North was dismantled and we returned to Davis. At the time of writing the bulk of the waste had been picked up by the Chinese (the balance to be collected next year) and the site has otherwise reverted to its natural state.
Many stars aligned in order to see AGAP come to fruition. The International Polar Year shone the brightest in the constellation and the afterglow will be felt for some time. The resourcing capability of multinational collaborations, coupled with the success of AGAP, could see an increase in the scientific study of Antarctica's vast interior and what lies below her hostile cap. Yet despite this immensity, AGAP North's minimalistic paradigm worked a treat and the Australian Antarctic Division may have laid a blueprint for future alliances into the wild heart of Antarctica.
Director, Icetrek Expeditions
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