Change in operations on Macquarie Island

Macca
The Division will use a network of existing field huts to support research on the Island. (Photo: Barry Becker)
Macca station

The Australian Antarctic Division will use a network of field huts to support future research on Macquarie Island, and will close the existing permanent research station in March next year.

The Australian Antarctic Strategy and 20 Year Action Plan, launched earlier this year, highlighted the need to deal with ageing infrastructure at the Macquarie Island research station.

An independent engineering investigation concluded an urgent decision on the future of the station was required to manage increasing risks associated with occupational health and safety, environmental contamination and site-exposure to ocean inundation. 

Withdrawal of a permanent presence will be a further step towards minimising human impacts on the Island. This follows the successful Macquarie Island pest eradication program which removed all introduced animals (cats, rabbits, rats and mice).

The Division’s Director, Dr Nick Gales, said the decision will allow a greater focus on our operations in the Australian Antarctic Territory.

“Macquarie Island is a unique and fragile ecosystem which holds a special place in the heart of many expeditioners and scientists, so I understand people may be disappointed with this decision,” Dr Gales said.

About a dozen expeditioner positions on the Island will be affected and the Division will work with these expeditioners to explore the possibility of re-deployment to other stations.

“The engineering report shows the cost of refurbishing the Macquarie Island buildings is such that it could not be justified within existing budgets.”

“While scientific research on the island will be impacted, opportunities to conduct high priority research will remain possible through the use of the six existing field huts and through extended ship visits into the future.”

Macquarie Island is about 1500 kilometres southeast of Hobart, about halfway between Tasmania and the Antarctic continent. 

The Australian Antarctic Division has continuously operated a year-round research station on the Island since 1948.

The Island is part of Tasmania and the Tasmanian Government is responsible for monitoring and protecting the island as a wildlife reserve and World Heritage site.

A team will be sent to the Island in November to start the process of decommissioning station infrastructure.

“All essential equipment and dangerous goods, including station fuel, will be removed by ship, and the buildings secured and closed down. 

“Demolition and removal of buildings and remediation of the site will be completed over the next decade,” he said.

The Division will work closely with affected agencies, including the Tasmanian Government, Bureau of Meteorology and the Australian Radiation Protection and Nuclear Safety Agency.

Change in operations on Macquarie Island

Video transcript

Nick Gales: So the Australian Antarctic Division is going to change the way that we operate at Macquarie Island. We're going to move from a year-round presence on the island where we occupy a large station to one where we'll use field huts based around the station during the summer period.

In the Australian Antarctic strategy that was released earlier this year the strategy identified the need for us to deal with very aging infrastructure on Macquarie Island, and a recent engineering review of the island showed us that a very large investment was needed to keep it safe for the people there and also safe for the environment. So we made the decision to continue science there through the summer using the stations, and this comes on the back end of a very successful pest eradication program on Macquarie Island.

So in terms of timing it's a good time to make a decision to lighten our footprint on the island, continue the important science but ensure that we don't reintroduce pests down there and allow the island now to return much more to its wilderness stage.

Journalist: A lot of people think that potentially this is a direct funding result, but the statement seems to mention obviously things about the human impact. What is the major reason for the changing the role down there?

Nick Gales: Well like all major and difficult decisions as there's a there's a mix of things. Budget's of course a part of it. We, like all areas operating, we don't operate in an unconstrained budget environment. So budgets do come into play I mean certainly looking at our capital investment budget the priorities are in other stations at the moment. But the decision is broader than just budgets it really does look at lightning a footprint there, recognizing that actually by using field huts and visits to the island on ships we can accomplish pretty much all of the high-priority research we're doing down there and really clean up. The station's been operating since 1948. It's very old. It needs pretty much to be completely removed and then in the future we can look at models if we need to that go beyond the six field huts. But the model we're moving into will be field based and summertime only.

Journalist: What does this mean for the long-term scientific program on the island, obviously that dates back even further than the AAD's presence? Does that mean that we're going to miss out now on the rich environmental and weather data that we've been reaping there for years?

Nick Gales: So I think most of the priority science that happens on Macquarie Island has happened for a very long time can continue. We're able to support that. There are some elements of long-term monitoring, some of the weather observations conducted by the Bureau, some of the other long-term monitoring projects that require people on the island all year round will be impacted and so we're now going to work closely with the agencies affected. We're going to as much as we possibly can mitigate the impact of the change and work with them to try and automate the systems that can remain on the island during the winter and if that's not possible look at alternatives and look at summer measurements only. So there will be impacts, of course there are in closing down a year-round station but we believe that most of the important data can be can be managed to those impacts can be mitigated.

Journalist: Australia only has four year round stations in Antarctica. How hard is it to make a decision to close one of those?

Nick Gales: Well it's a significant decision. The station at Macquarie Island is outside of the Antarctic Treaty area and out side of the core Antarctic area so it's not a statement in terms of Australia's engagement in the overall Antarctic strategy, in the Antarctic Program, and Macquarie Island is part of Tasmania. It's administered and managed by the Tasmanian government so it's been very much a joint Commonwealth and State initiative for a very long time. Our three continental stations down in Antarctica: Mawson, Davis and Casey will remain operating as usual and in fact this will enable us to focus their resources even more on the sort of some of the higher priority Antarctic and Southern Ocean strategic work.

Journalist: Does the division have plans to open another year round station on the antarctic continent?

Nick Gales: No, we have no plans to open a year-round station in Antarctica, an additional one. In the Antarctic strategy we did announce that we'll be looking very much more at inland and deep ice work and mobile inland research stations. So extending our research footprint deeper into the ice so if you like, a portable research station that can move right over the ice and the announcement also earlier this year of a new ice breaker which is an order of magnitude sort of step for us in terms of research capability represents very much a mobile ocean-based research station which we can deploy throughout the southern ocean and along the antarctic coastline.

Journalist: How will jobs be impacted from the decision?

Nick Gales: There's obviously the direct people who were about to go south who we'll be working with and we've spoken to and we'll generally be redeploying those across their program so the overall element of our number of people we employ to manage our program shouldn't change it all in the short term now in the planning towards next winter and they'll be some redeployments and maybe some contract deferments but it shouldn't impact staff overall.

Journalist: Just to be clear, you hadn't recruited people for the coming season?

Nick Gales: Where are we now, we're in September. Our first voyage departs next month and we're well into planning for the voyage, for the summer season so we'd started the process of considering all of our station's winter activities and this coming summer activities and we're now making some adjustments on the basis of this decision.

Journalist: Does it not point to this being a fairly sudden decision if you were already recruiting people for next winter?

Nick Gales: It's a decision that we've been considering for some time. It's a decision that at any point in time because our planning more or less runs all year round so at whatever point the actual decision was made there would always be a need to be engaging staff who are either on the Island now or were planning on heading down so almost at any point in time it would have required this kind of work.

We'll work really closely with the Tasmanian government, with the EPA, the Environmental Protection Agency in particular to work towards how we clean up the station over the next number of years. We'll need to make good so remove the current buildings. There may be some buildings of heritage value we'll work through that issue and also to remediate any damage that's been done in the environment. So we'll work closely to make good the current station site. It's not a site we could have stayed in for much longer. We get inundation from the ocean there in storm events so in any eventualities it required cleaning up and we'll focus our attention on keeping the the field huts operational and able to support research activities.

Journalist: How many field huts do you have there?

Nick Gales: We've got six field huts around the island spread right around the length of the island and again, we'll review the condition of each of the field huts, work out whether we need more or less to support the kind of research we're doing but ensure we've got enough to support our sort of research priorities on the island.

Journalist: And how does this impact on the ability of the Bureau of Meteorology and the Parks Service to deploy staff to Macquarie Island?

Nick Gales: Obviously you know the Australian Antarctic Division has run the station and so other agencies such as the Bureau and the Tasmanian Parks Service have been able to leverage off the existing support we're offering. That support will now change to a summer-only pattern that will affect those those agencies. We'll work with them to minimize the impact on their programs. Mostly the parks responsibilities are around managing tourism visits, which are by ship and so they'll be able to deploy their officers on those ships and manage that in a way that's in some ways easier than having island-based people all the time and with the Bureau again we will be engaging and working closely with the Bureau to ensure that we can support as much of the work as we can while only having a summer presence on the island.

Journalist: Have you spoken to the federal Environment Minister and has he offered any response?

Nick Gales: We certainly provided a brief to our Minister on the decision and and we've also made extensive sort of outreach to all of the stakeholders and spoken to all of the key affected agencies and people to inform them of the decision process and to inform them of our willingness and desire to work closely with them to to minimise any any negative outcomes and really to maximize on the positives because there are positives in terms of the environmental outcomes and the opportunities to work just in a different way on the Island in the future.

Journalist: Sorry to keep coming back to this, but it seems that this decision will have a pretty heavy impact on our ability to conduct climate science from Macquarie Island year-round at a time when that research is more important than ever.

Nick Gales: It's certainly the case that climate science is more important than ever. It's probably the single largest priority within the Australian Antarctic Program. We support, you could even argue up to two-thirds of our work is conducting areas around higher-latitude climate science, understanding oceanography, ocean ice interactions. Macquarie Island plays a relatively small part in that, but an important part and we will as I have mentioned earlier do what we can to ensure that those elements of the science are supported. We certainly would not wish to see and I don't believe we will see any real degrading in our ability to undertake the the climate science we need to across the southern ocean and around Antarctica.

Journalist: What's the reaction been among the various stakeholder groups that you've spoken to about this decision?

Nick Gales: I think most, a lot of the agencies, it's in some ways, it's not a particularly welcome announcement insofar as the fact that we've been there since 1948. There's a strong emotional and sort of tie to the Island and ending a long period of permanent occupation is always a sad thing to see, but overwhelmingly the responses we've got is an understanding of the situation, an understanding of the basis of the decision and a willingness to engage with us and to manage the transition into a new model. We will ensure that we commemorate the end of this era in some way. We're not quite sure how yet but we'll make sure that we undertake some activities on Macquarie Island as we depart there for the last time at least in terms of permanent presence in March next year and have some event back in Hobart as well because it's part of Tasmania, it's been an important part of Australia's Antarctic Program and a lot of people have had enormous interest in the place.

Journalist: And will the ice breaker still take not just Australian Antarctic Division scientists but scientists from other programs and Parks and Bureau down to Macquarie Island on the way to Antarctica?

Nick Gales: Absolutely. So our new model of operating at Macquarie will be via ship so our icebreaker will go via there. We also take down as part of sharing our resources with the French program, we take French expeditioners down on our aircraft to Antarctica and in return we have access to their vessel, L’Astrolabe and typically we use that vessel to visit Macquarie Island. That will continue into the future. So we imagine every summer for quite a number of years now we'll be visiting the Island either on L'Astrolabe or our own Aurora Australis and in four years time our new icebreaker, and continuing to undertake work from there either directly from the ship or leaving people on the island for a period of time and picking them up later in the summer.

Journalist: When you think of the last Australian researcher will leave Macquarie Island?

Nick Gales: For this summer it will be in March but I expect that they'll be of course then returning back towards the end of the year to undertake science activities but in March 2017 will be the end of permanent occupation on the Island.

[end transcript]