Antarctic video gallery
Winter sea ice extent
[Text: This film gained an honourable mention in the Australian Film Awards 1964 – "As a valuable record of Antarctic Exploration".]
[Title: Vostok 900]
Antarctica, a vast continent of ice and snow. A land of exquisite beauty. Of hills and valleys. Of great mountain whose mighty peaks break through the deserts of snow which cover them.
But apart from its beauty there is little here to comfort man. From great mountain peaks the vast plains scarred by savage wins this inhospitable land offers a challenge to mankind.
Against this background of cold beauty, men have come from many lands to explore Antarctica. But Antarctica is not easily explored.
Ice and snow provide a formidable barrier to those who come from the north. Although the continent, which is larger than Australia is circled by scientific stations, much of it remains unknown and uncharted. Every major traverse across the face of Antarctica helps to open up its secret and build up our knowledge of it.
This is the story of one such traverse. The story of six men of the Australian National Antarctic research expeditions who made a four-month journey across 900 miles of snow from Wilkes to Vostok, the coldest place on earth.
The traverse party of six included four Australians. Alastair Battye, glaciologist and official photographer. Don Walker, geophysicist. Pancho Evans, driver and mechanic. Neville Collins, senior mechanic. From America there was Danny Foster, meteorologist and from New Zealand, Bob Thomson, navigator, radio operator and the leader of the party. This then is their story.
Wilkes station, September 17, 1962. Following months of preparation we were leaving on the Vostok traverse.
The Russian station of Vostok was 900 miles inland near the geomagnetic South Pole. There are 23 men stationed at Wilkes, and today they turned out to lend a hand and see the six of us off.
We were in high spirits on this pleasant Antarctic day. There was an exchange of good-humoured banter with the mates who are being left behind and he would have been months before we saw again.
Most of the morning had been spent in organising tractors and sledges. There were nine sledges including two caravans. They carried our food, fuel supplies, drilling gear and scientific equipment.
Each of us was responsible for specific equipment and supplies. Heaven help us if we overlook anything for there could be no turning back.
We left Wilkes behind and began the slow steady climb up the plateau. As we climbed the temperature dropped and soon we were 4000 feet above sea level.
For the first 300 miles of the traverse we would follow a line of markers placed every mile by a party which had established fuel dumps along the line last year.
We had to find these fuel supplies, and that wasn't always easy. Snow drifts often covered the oil drums and whiteouts reduced visibility.
Often during those first weeks travel came to a stop as we ran into heavy blizzards. During the first month we lost 24 days of travel although every attempt was made to keep moving.
Sometimes we were reduced to a mile an hour by rough surfaces. Refueling was a regular chore or transferring diesel oil from the bulk tanks to the tractors.
The use of motor vehicles in the Antarctic has increased the amount of gear you can carry and the distance you've can cover in a day, but it's done little to listen the physical effort of traveling, for the vehicles themselves require a great deal of work to keep them going.
But still the weather was against us. More days were lost as we were blizzard bound again. We lay in our banks waiting, waiting, waiting for the weather to improve.
Temperatures dropped as low as −82 degrees Fahrenheit. One night our alarm clock stopped at 20 to four in the morning, frozen stiff.
When the weather did clear we had to dig out every tractor sledge and weasel and get them moving. The engines had to be preheated before we could start them. This sometimes took up to seven hours.
Our days started early, sometimes at half-past three in the morning.
An important part of a scientific work was the seismic survey plan to give us contours of the rock surface thousands of feet under the ice. A tractor was used to drive the drill 240 feet into the ice cap.
We were now 381 miles from Wilkes and over 9,000 feet above sea level. Daytime temperatures were below −50, working conditions were pretty tough.
When the bore hole was finished, thermometers were lowered down it and temperatures recorded at different levels. These figures would give an indication of past climatic conditions – a slow and painstaking job.
Then Don Walker would lower the dynamite down the hole. A series of microphones were laid out on the surface and when the dynamite was exploded the shock waves reflected by the underlying rock were recorded through these microphones. The recording equipment was set going and the countdown will begin.
[Sound of explosion]
Another heavy job was digging ice pits 10 feet deep. As glaciologist, this was Alastair Battye's domain, although occasionally talk one or other of us into giving him a hand. Once the hole was dug he studied the ice densities and took temperatures at various levels. These gave us a fairly detailed picture of past weather conditions.
So far the journey had gone well except for a few minor mishaps, but on October the 29, 505 miles from Wilkes we had our first major breakdown.
After traveling all day in −70 degrees one of the tractor engines had sheared an oil pump pin. Repairs were extremely difficult. The heavy bottom plate had to be removed, the oil sump taken off, and the pump repaired.
For two days, our mechanics Neville Collins and Pancho Evans worked temperatures below −60 with a constant wind of 15 knots. They both suffered from frostbitten hands and faces.
Frostbite can happen very quickly, you have to be extremely careful. In these very low temperatures, you should never allow bare skin to come into contact with metal. But at times you just can't avoid it. You can't replace a small screw wearing heavy mittens.
The first thing you feel is a slight numbness around your fingers. Unless you can get inside quickly and warm your hands, you suffer badly.
While repairs are being made on the oil pump and we took the opportunity to carry out minor repairs on the other vehicles. We were anxious to push on and we were happy to get underway again.
At 572 miles out from Wilkes we had a vital rendezvous. The American Air Force was to drop fuel supplies. Bad weather had delayed the flight for three days but at half-past four in the morning will awaken by the roar of the U.S. Globemaster overhead. We rushed outside smack into a temperature of minus ninety nine.
Well down came the fuel supplies. One parachute failed to open. The drums on it were smashed in the oil lost, but the rest landed intact.
This fuel drop was crucial to the whole operation. We couldn't carry sufficient fuel to take us from Wilkes to Vostok and return. This generous assistance from the Americans based at McMurdo Sound had made the whole traverse possible.
The oil for most of the drums was to be transferred to our bulk tanks. The rest of it was left here together with food supplies for our return journey.
We were traveling now through completely unknown land. Astro shots were taken regularly and checked against our compass bearings.
We'd been climbing steadily to an altitude of 11,000 feet. There are no landmarks of any kind of guide us. Just this rugged icy plain covered with sastrugi and carve bridges of ice up to five feet high.
Everything depended on accurate navigation. We traveled in a single file spread out over five miles and by using a special mirror system in the leading weasel the whole convoy was kept in a straight line and on an accurate course.
Around us spread this featureless plateau but always we were buoyed up by expectancy. What lay over the horizon? Mountains valleys, crevasses, who can tell?
Driving conditions improved and we were able to maintain a steady average of thirty miles. The altitude was nearly 12,000 feet and the average temperature was in the −30s.
On the morning of November the 18th, just over two months since we began the traverse, an astro check of our position showed that we were just 40 miles from Vostok. Our navigator Bob Thompson had done a remarkable job.
All day we pushed on. We received a message from the Russian Antarctic leader at Mirny, offering us full use of Vostok, which was then un-manned. We were looking forward to a change from our daily routine.
It was a strange, almost eerie feeling when we first arrived at this deserted place. We were a few miles from the geomagnetic south pole in the very heart of Antarctica. It was like a ghost town. Snowdrift all but covered some of the buildings and it took us over an hour to find the entrance.
These large vehicles are the ones which had been used by the Russians during their traverse to the South Pole in 1959.
Now they stood like giants asleep, and giants they were. They dwarf the weasels that have brought us here.
As for the station it stood 11,000 feet above sea level on ice 12,000 feet thick. It had recorded a record low temperature of −127 degrees Fahrenheit in 1960, by far the coldest place on earth.
One of the first things we had to do was to use the hot air machine to raise the inside temperature of the station which was −70 degrees when we arrived and it's colder on the inside then it was on the outside.
Once we were in we were able to relax and enjoy a few home comforts. After our cramped quarters of the past two months, it was good to have more space to stretch out in. And thanks to our absent hosts there was Russian food and wine to be enjoyed.
And then came the greatest luxury of all for the first time in two months we were able to take off our clothes and have a makeshift bath. Yes it was almost like Christmas.
And then like all explorers we held a ceremony to raise the American and Australian flags and to take the traditional group photograph.
Here we were, six men of widely different interests, linked in this moment in time with some of the most illustrious names in Antarctic history. Shackleton, Scott, Amundsen, Mawson, all of them had at some time or other raised their flags and posed for their cameras – just as we were doing now. It was one photograph he would always prize.
But now our days at Vostok were coming to an end. They've been busy days as we service our vehicles and equipment for the return journey of 900 miles. In addition to working on their own gear we had to maintain the station, running generators for heat and light, keeping a 24-hour fire guard and fending for ourselves. And we were looking forward to the return journey.
On Sunday November the 25th we left Vostok station. But before we did so, we all signed a note of thanks, which we left for our Russian hosts. We had reached Vostok all right but our job was only half done.
Navigation now presented little trouble. Our old tracks stretched out in front of us and were quite easy to follow. We made good time, and before long we arrive back at our last fuel dump.
Our fuel position was causing us some concern. Each of the tractors was getting only one and a half miles to the gallon and the weasels two and a half.
When 719 miles from home we found that a drum leak had lost 30 gallons of precious fuel. This represented most of our surplus. Great economy would be needed for the rest of the trip.
Most of our scientific work was to be done on the way back, but now the weather was fine. The sun shone for 24 hours a day and this continued for 46 days without a break.
Every 30 miles we made a seismic survey to measure the ice thickness. In between these seismic shots we took a gravity reading every mile. The greatest thickness of ice we recorded was over 15,000 feet. We would then move on another 30 miles and repeat the whole process.
Every six hours our American meteorologist Danny Foster made up his detailed weather observations. These were the encoded and transmitted to Australia and to all other stations in Antarctica.
Then there were the many tasks that had to be done every day to keep us going. Refueling from the bulk tanks, preparing meals and the paperwork in which we recorded our days observations.
We were nearly halfway home. They were busy crowded days but our morale was high. It was surprising how well we all got on together. We'd become a close-knit team and they'd been remarkably little friction. No doubt having plenty to do helped a lot.
All was progressing well – perhaps too well; for on Monday the 17th December we had a major breakdown 477 miles from Wilkes. A pre-combustion chamber had blown up and we had no spares. For a time it looked as if we might have to abandon the tractor and leave some of the sledges and scientific equipment behind. But thanks to the ingenuity of our mechanics, a repair was made and after a day of anxious waiting we were off again.
The last few weeks of our traverse were particularly pleasant. Apart from a violent blizzard which struck us on December the 24th, giving us a very white Christmas, temperatures were warming up to −10 as we came down the plateau towards the coast.
There was an unexpected airdrop of mail from home. Quite suddenly thoughts of home began to quicken. Soon we'd see our colleagues at Wilkes. The Thala Dan was lying close in shore ready to take us back to Australia.
Soon all of us would be left behind. Civilization would claim us. But no matter where our future might take us we would always remember these four months of exploration, of hardship, of comradeship which we'd shared.
Leadership and learning
Leadership and learning
Jason Ahrens, Casey station leader:
This will be my fourth trip south, so I’ve done two winters on the continent at Davis station in 2007 and 2013 and I’ve done one at Macquarie Island in the subantarctic. It’s a package deal, there’s not one thing that I go back for, it’s the people, meeting the people and getting to know them, the remoteness, the isolation is attractive to me. I like the fact that it’s a challenge, that you push yourself. Helping others is why I enjoy the station leader job. At Kingston prior to leaving for Antarctica we do some intense fire training. We can’t call up the fire brigade to come and help us, we are our own fire team. We all do breathing apparatus, we learn from Tas Fire how to handle different situations in fire and how to do a rescue if we need to.
Jenny Wressell, Mawson station leader:
I applied to be a station leader because I grew up in Tasmania, I grew up seeing auroras on the horizon just every now and again and it was enough to make me always want to go to Antarctica. So at Mawson station we use the quad bikes for riding across the sea ice and Auster Rookery is actually one of the biggest emperor penguin rookeries in Antarctica and that’s one of our major research projects over the summer and winter season. They’re also one of our main vehicles for getting out into the field and for recreational activities, so they’re really important to learn how to ride them safely here in Hobart before we leave.
Ali Dean, Davis station leader:
I’m a geologist, so I was working in the outback of Australia before I applied to work in the Antarctic and I’ve now been working down there for 15 years, so it is a big part of my life. Being a station leader I’m involved in every aspect of Antarctic work, from the maintenance programs through to some of the remote field programs. There’s a lot of training that we get, and we get it every time we go to Antarctica, and there’s some things that you might not consider, even down to hydroponics. We have a hydroponics facility at each of the stations and that helps to provide us with greens through the winter, it’s an amazing place to go, it’s lovely and light and humid so it’s always a favourite of the expeditioners.
Esther Rodewald, Macquarie Island station leader:
I’ve spent the last 25 years working freelance in film and television production but I was looking for a bit of a challenge and some new skills to learn and to push myself out of my comfort zone. Antarctica was a place I was very aware of and it was somewhere I never thought I’d get to go. As part of our community training we’re starting boating next week, which is four days of training in IRBs which are small inflatable boats. Macquarie, given the way that it is as an island, it doesn’t have a harbour, it doesn’t have a wharf, so anything that comes in over the water has to come off a large boat onto a little IRB or a LARC or a barge or something and come in over the surf. We need to go through training to get comfortable in those boats in those conditions. And then when we’re down there, if the weather’s nice, we have two coxswains with us this year, so it’s a quicker way to get around the island without having to hike up hill and down again, to get round some of the penguin colonies.
Icy celebration of winter solstice
Icy celebration of winter solstice
>> Jenny Wressell – Mawson Station Leader:
Hi, I’m Jenny, the station leader at Mawson station in Antarctica. Today we are celebrating midwinter day or winter solstice, the shortest day and the longest night of the year. The sun last set at Mawson on the nineteenth of June and it will rise again on the twenty-ninth of June. An Antarctic tradition is the midwinter swim. Today’s low was minus 29.3 degrees and the water is around minus 1.8 degrees.
Midwinter is an important day for the station – it means the return of longer days and more sunshine. There are currently 14 people at Mawson station and it’s an amazing experience to be living in such an extreme environment, but at this time of year we also miss our family and friends at home.
First midwinter airdrop to Australian Antarctic station
First midwinter airdrop to Australian Antarctic station
Dr Nick Gales, Director: A very exciting development in the Antarctic program, we did our very first ever winter airdrop down to one of our stations in Antarctica. It’s a brand new capability for us, working with the RAAF in one of their very large aircraft, a C-17. We were able to drop down mail, some medical equipment and some engineering gear. Our normal pattern is that we have access to Antarctica during the summer only from about October through to March. All of the equipment has to be very carefully planned as to what goes down on the ship, some on aircraft. But once you get to March and the last ship or the last plane departs you have what you have and you have to survive. So this is actually a really important change. It makes it safer to be down there. We can get gear that broke or ran out and we didn’t have spares down there and it just changes the way we can think about working.
Flt Lt Doug Susans, RAAF: We’ll be flying 2000 nautical miles from Avalon down to a drop zone in the vicinity of Casey station on Antarctica. We’ll be airdropping three CDS bundles – that’s a container delivery system bundle – onto the ice and then we’ll be flying back to Hobart. This trip is particularly challenging due to the nature of Casey station being right down in the polar regions of Antarctica. It’s very cold, there’s a lot of icing. A cargo drop is achieved from a C-17 by slowing down to approximately 145 knots, that’s about 270 kilometres per hour. We descend to approximately 5000 feet and we open the back of the aircraft up and electrically release the load and it rolls out the back. As it goes out the back a static line pulls the parachute open and then it falls onto the ground.
Matt Filipowski, Future Concepts Manager: The crews on the ground after the airdrop was completed located them on the drop zone up on the plateau of Antarctica and then they used heavy vehicles and machinery to load those. Each load was approximately 500 kilos each and then transported it the 10 kilometres back to Casey where they unpacked it and checked it all over.
Contract signed for Australia's new icebreaker
Contract signed for Australia's new icebreaker
Foreign Minister Julie Bishop:
Today represents another chapter in the Turnbull government’s plan to drive a stronger economy through an embrace of innovation and scientific research and endeavour. Yesterday, the Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, the Environment Minister Greg Hunt and I announced Australia’s Antarctic Strategy and our 20 Year Action Plan, which establishes Australia as a leader in the Antarctic.
The Treaty regime that governs the Antarctic is undoubtedly in Australia’s national interest, and we support that Treaty’s regime. And it’s interesting to note that when the Antarctic Treaty was first signed in 1959 there were 12 signatory countries; today there are 53.
We are a leader in the Antarctic because it’s in our interests for the Antarctic to remain a natural reserve. There is no mining, no militarisation, it is for peaceful purposes, for scientific research and endeavour.
The centrepiece of our 20 Year Action Plan will be the commissioning of a new icebreaker, a state of the art icebreaker for Australia to continue our groundbreaking Antarctic research. The exciting news is that the icebreaker will be housed here in Hobart, this will be its home port, and that will mean a significant amount of work for local businesses, it will mean more local jobs for the maintenance, the supply and the operations to the Antarctic more generally.
We’re very excited to be working with partners DMS Maritime and other partners for the commissioning of this new icebreaker, a far cry from Sir Douglas Mawson’s first effort in 1911. And this represents a new era in Australia’s leadership in the Antarctic, and in terms of the scientific research, development and endeavour that we will be able to undertake.
And so I’m very pleased as the Minister for Foreign Affairs and responsible for our Treaty obligations to be part of this signing ceremony today which really does mean an enormous amount for Hobart and for Tasmania, reconfirming its status as the premier gateway to East Antarctica.
Now can I hand over to my friend the Environment Minister.
Environment Minister Greg Hunt:
Thanks very much to Julie, and in particular for that overview of Australia’s role in the Antarctic Treaty system and as a global gateway to the Antarctic. To Julie; to Matt Groom, the Tasmanian Minister for State Growth and Environment; to our Senators, Senate President Stephen Parry and Senator David Bushby who together really have been absolute drivers of the Antarctic vision for Tasmania; to our Senate Candidate Jonno Duniam, and to our magnificent Tasmanian lower house members Brett Whiteley and Eric Hutchinson and our candidates Amanda-Sue Markham and Marcus Allen.
And of course to everybody involved with this project, it’s an absolute thrill to be here at the signing ceremony for Australia’s new Antarctic icebreaker. The vision, as Julie has said, is to be a global gateway for the Antarctic, indeed to be the global gateway and that’s about Tasmania, that’s about Hobart, but it’s also about the great scientific vision.
Yesterday we announced $255 million for the over land transport, the capacity to search for the great million year ice core, to be engaged in the search for the holy grail of Antarctic research, and all of the funding which goes with it.
Today we are announcing a $1.91 billion lifetime contract for the new Antarctic icebreaker so $1.91 billion for a new Antarctic icebreaker. That is broken up in terms of $530 million for the construction and testing and delivery of the icebreaker and then about $1.38 billion for the lifetime operation, maintenance and development of the icebreaker of which $1.1 billion we expect will be spent here in Tasmania.
So that is a $1.1 billion benefit directly to Tasmania, one of the largest Commonwealth expenditures ever, in Tasmania, and it’s for science, it’s for climate research, it’s for environmental research and it’s for education and health all in Tasmania.
Tasmania has the capacity to become the world’s global gateway but the world’s premier southern hemisphere Antarctic research centre, and that’s about building on our magnificent institutions here.
So that’s a huge contract. But what’s the ship about? The ship is the Millennium Falcon of the Antarctic icebreaking world. Faster, stronger and more capable. And so its length is 156 metres. Its speed is 16 knots. Its capacity is 1.65 metres of ice depth which can be broken when travelling at three knots. And so this is an extraordinary ability to transport people and fuel and logistics to our supply bases so it makes them stronger, but it’s also a scientific platform in itself.
It has bathymetric capacity to map the sea bed, to imagine what could be the case, to discover things which were never known and which may never have been imagined. And so what a vision of the future in scientific research and innovation, and it’s real, and it’s happening here in Tasmania.
It has a scientific platform, so it will be doing in sea trials, it will be doing work on krill, work on the Southern Ocean system, work on the impacts of climate change on our great oceanic systems, so this is the future, here now in Tasmania.
And so with that I am delighted to say that the Commonwealth will today be signing the agreement with DMS Maritime and to be built by Damen shipyards. It’s a great achievement, and to our negotiators, Peter Block, and David Sumner and team, a marathon effort, great outcome, we thank you, we congratulate you and we say to Tasmania, you are now the future. Thank you.
Minister Hunt launches Australian Antarctic Strategy
Minister Hunt launches Australian Antarctic Strategy
Let me step back for a moment. Australia’s vision for the Antarctic is of an area of the world’s last great wildernesses. It’s a majestic environment that we want to preserve in its pristine state and to preserve as an area of peaceful cooperation, not competition. And as part of that vision, we want to be the world leading gateway to the Antarctic. And Hobart is the gateway to the Antarctic for the future. That’s what we are seeking to do and that’s what we are setting out as part of this process.
What are our national interests beyond this vision? Our national interests really are four-fold.
Firstly at the environmental level we are custodians of the Antarctic along with others, as an original signatory of the Antarctic Treaty, we have a deep strong duty, we want to preserve this incredible area not just for decades, not just for generations but for eons and eons hence. That is, this generation’s duty and legacy for future generations.
Beyond that, science is a key national interest. This funding today, and this strategy helps us in the search for the million-year ice core. This is one of the world’s great scientific endeavours, and it is likely, on the advice I have from Dr Nick Gales and other scientists within AAD, that if the ice core is to be found, it will be found in Australia’s Antarctic Territory.
A tremendous opportunity, and this is about unearthing the secrets of our climate, unearthing the secrets of our history, in the ice core, and I’ve been fortunate to do ice core exploration work, you discover the history of climate activity over the life of that ice core. And so the bubbles that are found, the concentrations that are found tell us what the climate was like, how it responded, how it acts. And we can learn from that about the very things that will impact on our day to day lives and our trends here in Hobart, here in Tasmania, and here in Australia more broadly.
Beyond the interests of environment and science, we also have the great tasks of national security, and a peaceful cooperative Antarctica is a critical piece of a peaceful cooperative Southern Ocean, and if we have a Southern Ocean which is free of strategic competition, then Australia is safer and the costs for Australians are dramatically lower.
And then last of all we have the economic, and growth and jobs benefits to Hobart and Tasmania, Hobart being the global gateway to the Antarctic. This is about science jobs, education jobs, it’s about logistical jobs, it’s about the attraction of Hobart as a world class visiting point for the creation of climate science, of environmental science, of Antarctic science and for people to participate in that.
So that’s the grand vision, coupled with the interests, then what are the actions which are set out in this 20 Year Strategy and Action Plan for Australia’s Antarctic engagement.
And the actions really boil down to three things. Overall, there’ll be an announcement or there will be an allocation of $255 million of additional new funds over the next 10 years. That is $200 million for firstly the operation of AAD, it’s an average $20 million a year fillip to their budget, that’s tremendously important not just for the work of AAD but, as Nick was explaining, the long term ability to plan science. So more scientists on the ice, but with the ability to look and plan over a series of years. I think that’s exceptionally important.
Then beyond that there’s an additional $55 million for on-ice activities as well and that includes the $45 million for a traverse capability. What does it mean? Look over here at the yellow Hägglunds, this is the sort of thing, but with a newer, better, faster version which can help us with what we’re doing on the ice. So overall we’ll be building the ability to traverse inland, to create science opportunities so our scientists are safe, but they are also more mobile, they’re able to be engaged in the search for the million year ice core, they’re able to be engaged in the search for new information about Antarctic life, about the Antarctic climate and about its impacts as a centrepiece of the global climate system.
And then there is $10 million, which is for the feasibility study for the bankability study for an all year round runway. This will look at the question of is it economically feasible and attractive, is it physically feasible and achievable and if so where and how should it be built? There will be testing involved, and that’s a really important project.
But right now, a new traverse capability which will give our scientists an unparalleled opportunity and put us right at the forefront, and then the next step, and that comes on top of the announcement only last week of ‘green for go’ for the Hobart runway which will be extended, and in a short period of time that will mean that there’s an extra capability for heavy lift, for extra science through aerial transportation to Antarctica.
There’s one more element, and that of course is the new icebreaker, I will say we are very close to a very significant announcement on a new icebreaker and the full funding for that will be announced in due course. Our negotiators are working very hard and I expect an announcement on that in the imminent future.
Put together, this is the greatest investment in Antarctic research in Australian history and it’s a tribute to all of the scientists here.