Managing activities in the Larsemann Hills

Aerial view of Zhongshan and Progress stations
The ice free areas of the Larsemann Hills provide logistical access to countries’ inland stations, such as Zhongshan (pictured, with Progress visible in the background) which is a staging post for China’s Kunlun station. The broader region has aesthetic and wilderness values arising from its distinctive combination of rugged hills, lakes and fjords, framed by the plateau, a glacier and nearshore islands and icebergs. (Photo: Sandra Potter)
The new Indian station, Bharati, under construction in 2012Russia’s Progress station in the Larsemann HillsA map showing the boundary of the Larsemann Hills Antarctic Specially Managed AreaThis rare mineral containing boron and silicon, known as ‘prismatine’ (dark crystals) makes up a prominent peak on StornesPhotomicrograph of striped boralsilite prisms

The Larsemann Hills are an East Antarctic logistical hub and the only Antarctic Specially Managed Area (ASMA) in which multiple countries have continuously occupied stations. In the margins of a recent meeting of the Council of Managers of National Antarctic Programs, Australia worked with other countries active in the area to continue discussions around managing and protecting the region.

The Larsemann Hills ASMA is an ice-free area of 40 km2, some 120 km west of Davis. The area was designated an ASMA in 2007 following a joint nomination by Australia, China, India, Romania and the Russian Federation. The impetus for seeking designation was quite simple; to facilitate the heightened protection of the local environment by promoting coordination and cooperation in the planning and conduct of science. At the time of the nomination the area was already home to an Australian summer facility (Law Base, now Law-Racovita-Negoita), and the year-round stations of China and Russia (Zhongshan and Progress) which were built before the Protocol on Environmental Protection to the Antarctic Treaty was negotiated.

The Larsemanns of the 21st century are an East Antarctic hub akin to King George Island in the Antarctic Peninsula and the McMurdo region in the Ross Sea. Zhongshan has recently been rebuilt and extended and is the staging post for China’s activities at Kunlun, 1200 km inland, and the newly established Taishan summer station. Progress has similarly undergone significant redevelopment and has replaced Mirny station as the logistical centre for Russian Antarctic Expeditions; Russia’s ski-way and traverse capability link the region to various intra and intercontinental destinations. There are also some 15 km of roads, and a new Indian station, Bharati, replacing a field hut positioned in 2007. Bharati is on a small peninsula between Thala Fjord and Quilty Bay and has been continuously occupied since 2012.

As well as being important in logistical terms, the Larsemann Hills are a site of high conservation value; a particularly notable feature being the 150-plus lakes, ranging in size from shallow ponds to large ice-deepened basins. It is thought that some of these lakes and their resident micro-fauna have been little disturbed for 130 000 years. In addition to its scientific significance, the area has considerable aesthetic and wilderness values arising from its distinctive combination of rugged hills, lakes and fjords framed by the plateau, a glacier and near shore islands and icebergs.

At the time of writing there are more than 70 Antarctic Specially Protected Areas (ASPAs) and seven ASMAs in Antarctica. The Larsemann Hills ASMA is the only one in which multiple countries have continuously-occupied stations; this presence increasing the importance of robust and regular discussions on matters of shared interest. While the management arrangements are proving to be an Antarctic success story, there remain many challenges ahead with four on site languages, four cultures and four countries’ operational needs and policy interests to accommodate.

Among the issues recently discussed by the ASMA Management Group were:

  • The adequacy of the ASMA management plan. Following a workshop hosted by the Arctic and Antarctic Research Institute in 2013 a revised plan was submitted to the Antarctic Treaty Consultative Meeting held in April 2014.
  • Plateau access difficulties. China and Russia are jointly working on improving the road from Broknes (the eastern-most peninsula) to the plateau.
  • Cargo operations. In some years it is not possible to transfer cargo from resupply vessels direct to Broknes, necessitating the identification of alternative landing sites.
  • Aviation safety. Multiple countries’ fixed and rotary wing aircraft frequent or are based in the area each summer.
  • Coordination of lake research and monitoring. Beyond their scientific and intrinsic values, some of the area’s lakes are used for station water supply.
  • Regional biosecurity arrangements. The Larsemann Hills are a first point of entry into Antarctica for China, India and Russia. Experience elsewhere shows that transport hubs can function as stepping-stones for invasions by non-native species. The measures agreed represent the first such arrangement for Antarctica.
  • Enhancing the protection of the ASMA’s unique geology. Management Group member countries have jointly nominated Stornes, the Larsemann’s largest and most geologically significant peninsula, as an ASPA (see box story).
  • Local waste management. There exists a risk that any poorly stored waste materials could become significant sources of pollution both in the immediate area and many kilometres distant.
  • Oversight of activities at Amanda Bay - an ASPA 30 km from the Larsemann Hills. The ASPA was designated to enhance the protection of a colony of several thousand pairs of emperor penguins breeding on the area’s fast ice. Its most frequent visitors are personnel from ASMA Management Group member countries.

Sandra Potter
Strategies Branch, Australian Antarctic Division

Special protection for Stornes ‘hard rock’

The first Antarctic Specially Protected Area nomination of a crystalline or ‘hard rock’ occurrence, on Stornes, has been made by Australia, China, India and the Russian Federation. Stornes is the largest peninsula in the Larsemann Hills and at the 2014 Antarctic Treaty Consultative Meeting in Brazil it was assigned number 174 on the ASPA master list.

Located within the Larsemann Hills Antarctic Specially Managed Area, Stornes is the first ASPA that has been designated primarily for its outstanding geological features, which are collectively known as hard rock occurrences. Hard rock is a term used by geologists to signify crystalline rocks (igneous or metamorphic) as opposed to ‘soft-rock’ which refers to sedimentary or unconsolidated material. (Marine Plain ASPA No. 143 near Davis is a soft rock occurrence.) Stornes contains assemblages of borosilicate and phosphate which are considered significant both in their variety and origin (see images above and Australian Antarctic Magazine 13: 18-19, 2007).

The ASPA is 21 km2 in area and approximately 1.5 km to the south-west of Bharati (India). Entry, as with all ASPAs, now requires a permit issued by a national authority.

The Australian Antarctic Division acknowledges the expert contributions of Dr Chris Carson of Geoscience Australia and Professor Ed Grew of the University of Maine to the development of the Stornes management plan. Copies of the management plan are available from the Antarctic Treaty Secretariat’s website and the Australian Antarctic Division.

Rebecca Malcolm
Strategies Branch, Australian Antarctic Division