Mountains unearthed in the wild heart of Antarctica

Until this year Dome Argus, the summit of the colossal East Antarctic plateau, remained one of the least-explored places on Earth. It is remote, bitterly cold and towers four kilometres above sea level. To the uninitiated its surface appears like any other part of the austere and lifeless interior, but underneath lies one of our planet’s greatest enigmas — a hidden mountain range that defies all tectonic reasoning.

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.

Planning for AGAP began in earnest at a meeting of collaborators in May 2007, with Operations Planning Manager, Robb Clifton, shaping the Australian Antarctic Division contribution for 18 months.

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.

On December 9, after two nights at the Groves, Sharon and I flew with FAZ to the AGAP N location (S77.18, E77.01), almost 1000 km inland of Davis and about 3000 m above sea level. The site, littered with fields of sastrugi, had been cast in ice a fortnight earlier, with the airdrop by a US Air Force C-17 Globemaster of 112 drums of aviation fuel and unleaded petrol. Two subsequent drops of another 224 drums of fuel saw the icescape strewn with fuel bundles and parachutes. A final drop spewed from the back of the C-17 an hour after our arrival.

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.

Over the next 24 days life at AGAP North fell into a routine of eat, sleep and work. A single day routine went something like: breakfast; air mechanic Kyle Hegadus preps the Otter; geophysicist and instrument operator Tom Jordan cranks up the on-board computers; pilot Doug Cochrane warms up the Otter and tests the satellite phone and VHF radio, while I monitor the communications console in the Polarhaven tent. After take-off, Doug and Tom fly a predetermined series of unwavering lines over the icecap, while the instruments obtain data from the array of receivers. Every hour Doug calls me on the Iridium to confirm their status and get a weather update. On the ground, Scott, Sharon and Catrin work hard in the cold, rarefied air, deconstructing the fuel bundles, digging drums and parachutes from the snow and transporting fuel to the taxiway for refuelling and bundling to the waste cache. Head scientist, Fausto Ferraciolli, taps away at his laptop in the science tent, converting data to tangible pictures and working on tomorrow’s flight lines.

After three hours the survey Otter returns and Tom dashes across to the science tent with a hard drive to begin processing. The Otter is refuelled by Kyle and the seven spent drums are squashed in the pneumatic drum crusher and transported to the waste cache. Second pilot, Ian Potten, takes over the next flight with science engineer Carl Robinson. Catrin takes my place behind the phone and off we go again, sometimes three times per day, towards a grand total of 54 flights in just over three weeks.

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.

With the days becoming noticeably cooler we closed the camp on January 10 and bid farewell to our BAS colleagues. With over six terabytes of data logged they would now begin the laborious task of processing the information and publishing their results. The end product, a virtual unearthing of the Gamburtsev Mountains, together with insights into their formation and where the world's oldest ice might lie, will be the disclosure of one of Antarctica's greatest secrets.

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