A challenging Antarctic season

The Aurora Australis on the sea ice during the Davis resupply, 2011.
Davis station resupply from the Aurora Australis. (Photo: Kristin Yates)
Containers of waste from the Thala Valley tip site are loaded from the Casey wharf on to a barge, for transfer to the Xue Long. The Sikorsky S76 (left) and Squirrel helicopters during the Mawson resupply from the sea ice. Heritage carpenter, Mike Staples, works on the restoration of Biscoe Hut at Mawson.

The 2010–11 Australian Antarctic season started with the first Casey expeditioners flying to McMurdo on Australia’s Airbus A319 and then across to Casey on a United States LC130 Hercules. The collaborative arrangement saw us utilise the Hercules’s heavy lift and ski capability to get people and cargo to Casey, while the US used the Airbus throughout the season for several passenger transfers to and from McMurdo in return.

At the same time, the Aurora Australis departed for Davis. The voyage saw a significant amount of science activity, with an airborne laser project and automated underwater vehicle trials undertaken by sea ice researchers. Concurrently, six expeditioners left Hobart for Macquarie Island on the French ship L’Astrolabe.

The French voyage subsequently met tragedy, with four French expeditioners dying in a helicopter crash during a long-range fly-off to Dumont D’Urville. Australia assisted with search and rescue efforts that were coordinated by the Australian Maritime Safety Authority. The Australian Antarctic Division’s Crisis Management Team was activated and the Aurora Australis diverted four days off its course to Davis to assist if required. Hobart-based staff also assisted the search effort, with glaciologists providing ice imagery and forecasts, and aviation staff giving expert knowledge to RAAF and other crews unfamiliar with Antarctic flying. We provided field equipment for those undertaking the search and survival equipment to be dropped to any survivors. Our colleagues at the Bureau of Meteorology worked tirelessly to forecast for the vessels and aircraft involved, while the US program lent aircraft to the search effort from Christchurch and McMurdo. Sadly, the wreckage and bodies were found some 48 hours after the emergency beacon had been activated. 

At Casey, science became a focus with the arrival of a Basler aircraft as part of an Australian—US collaboration to undertake geophysical surveys of the Totten Glacier region. Another project saw a field party deploy to the Totten Glacier to undertake ground-based surveys to help calibrate a newly launched satellite system that will determine ice thickness through remote sensing. At the same time, construction crews continued work on the West Wing accommodation at Casey and the new accommodation and operations facilities at Wilkins aerodrome. By the end of the season the West Wing rooms were occupied, providing a greater number and far greater standard of accommodation for expeditioners. 

A significant project at Casey this season was the cleanup of waste from the old Thala Valley tip site. This project was made possible through collaboration with the Chinese Antarctic program and some 1005 tonnes of contaminated soil was removed using their ship Xue Long.

The challenges of the season continued when one of our C212 aircraft was damaged in a hard landing at the Bunger Hills and subsequently deemed unserviceable. The effort to recover this aircraft was enormous and saw additional engineers flown in from Australia to assist. A Twin Otter was also chartered from Canada to make up the shortfall in fixed wing capability, providing search and rescue coverage for the remaining C212 and allowing our program to continue. The remaining C212 supported the transfer of a small number of people between Davis and Mawson and a wide-ranging treaty inspection program that visited stations in Terra Nova Bay, overflew Leningradskaya and delivered an inspection team to the Russian Vostok station (see Oates Land to inland). The C212 at Bunger Hills was eventually retrieved to Casey skiway, with both C212s departing shortly thereafter for Australia.

At Davis our two squirrel helicopters transferred people between Davis and Mawson and supported a range of science projects and operational activities. Scientific work included penguin and marine ecology research projects, Geoscience Australia surveys, and some atmospheric physics projects, including installation and operation of a German iron LIDAR. Expeditioners also completed the new Davis living quarters and numerous other construction and maintenance projects. Davis hosted a number of visits by Chinese, Russian and Indian expeditioners from the Larsemann Hills and the Davis team evacuated a sick Chinese expeditioner from Dome A by Twin Otter aircraft.

At Mawson there were numerous flights of helicopters, C212, Twin Otter and even a German Basler attempting to reach Casey for a collaborative science project. The Béchervaise Island penguin research team spent the summer hard at work while two heritage carpenters continued the restoration of historic Biscoe Hut. The station also supported science projects from Geoscience Australia and atmospheric physics researchers.

In January a major marine science voyage departed Hobart on the Aurora Australis to investigate the Mertz Glacier area. This voyage was a significant and fascinating study of the marine ecosystem that remained after the huge tongue of the Mertz Glacier broke off (see Mertz Glacier calving provides scientific opportunities).

Airbus flights finally commenced in February, after a season where melt conditions continuously thwarted the efforts of the Wilkins runway construction crew to open the runway. To mitigate the impacts of Wilkins’s closure Australian, Italian and French expeditioners flew by Airbus to McMurdo and then took C212 or Basler aircraft to Casey. The Airbus also flew numerous dedicated flights for the Italian and US programs in return for their support of our operations through McMurdo.

Last, but not least, on Macquarie Island expeditioners hosted 10 tourist ship visits over the summer and completed installation of a new facility to detect nuclear detonations, on behalf of the Australian Radiation Protection and Nuclear Safety Agency. Science projects on the island investigated the albatross and giant petrel populations, the island’s fur seal population, terrestrial ecology and vegetation change, and bioremediation of fuel spills, to name just a few! A team was also busy testing baits and other measures in anticipation of the next eradication attempt of rabbits, rats and mice. 

As I write this (in May) I am travelling on the Aurora Australis to Macquarie Island. Two weeks ago the L’Astrolabe, on charter to the Australian Antarctic Division, completed the cargo resupply of the station by LARC. Now we are establishing bait depots at Hurd Pt, Green Gorge and the isthmus, along with a complete refuel of the station. Macquarie Island will remain very busy over winter with 43 people on station supporting, amongst other programs, the eradication project. This eradication will see over 200 tonnes of bait spread by four helicopters. The baiting will be followed up by ground hunting teams, including 12 dogs.

The 2010–11 season has thrown many challenges at the Australian Antarctic program and these have all been met with typical professionalism and problem solving by the whole team. It has been a productive season that has seen completion of infrastructure projects, a major environmental cleanup, wide use of international collaboration and the operation of numerous science projects and campaigns.

ROBB CLIFTON

Support and Coordination Manager, Australian Antarctic Division