New tools for Australia’s Antarctic research

In this, the second edition of Australian Antarctic Magazine, we have chosen to take a look at the new tools with which science is actually done in the Antarctic. As the Director points out in the introduction, the swag of anniversaries we have been celebrating this year gives us a wonderful platform from which we can look forward and, as it were, reflect on the future.

Scientific research has come a long way from the first experiments made by Sir Edmond Halley aboard the Paramore in 1699. In his day scientific knowledge was sketchy and instrument design was, by present day standards, poor. It was a scientist of great courage who set off in a small wooden boat to measure magnetic fields and other physical phenomena but many did so with astonishing accuracy. Some of Halley’s magnetic variation data obtained 400 years ago has been considered reliable enough for inclusion in a recent study of geomagnetic variation.

But science in the Antarctic is no different from science anywhere else. Advances in technology can be quickly applied, provided some care is given to instrument design and construction. Computers and radio telecommunications have revolutionised how data may be collected and stored, or transmitted directly to a scientist’s lap-top, many thousands of kilometres away. As the collection of articles in this edition shows, the Australian scientific program is heavily based on new and emerging technologies. As costs of on-site data collection increase, and the scientific questions that need to be asked become ever more complex, we can confidently expect to see dramatic increases in our use of remote sensing, of collecting information about the world about us through remote instrumentation. But I am not advocating a person-free Antarctic science program! The future for the science program rests on us being able to do the things we are currently doing at lesser cost, to free up resources (and the scarcest of these is human brain power) for entirely new developments. Close your eyes and imagine the Australian scientific program in the Antarctic, 10 to 15 years hence.

Our ice-breaking research vessel slows down as it approaches the ice edge. Technicians and engineers wheel a pilotless helicopter from a small hangar and adjust its payload of cameras, radar arrays and atmospheric sampling vessels. Lifting off the deck, its three-metre rotor span gives it great controllability and within a few minutes it is photographing a colony of emperor penguins from 1000 metres altitude. Rising to 3000 metres it collects radar data on ice thickness and roughness. Its GPS system enables scientists later to compare the ice conditions at one precise location over several years. Finally it collects samples of air at a number of predetermined altitudes before returning to the mother ship, where its samples and films are unloaded. The program’s technicians then launch a pilotless submarine vessel that is able to travel far under the sea-ice shelf, recording temperature, salinity, and current, while its upward-looking cameras scan the undersurface of the ice for a record of recent melting and refreezing. After being sent to the ocean floor its downward-looking cameras capture images of the sea floor, and its flora and fauna.

Too fanciful? A bit. Futuristic? Certainly. Today we have the technology to make enormous strides in the understanding of the Antarctic environment. As Nick Gales points out in his article, we are entering a new era of obtaining crucial data about the lives of marine mammals using new biotechnological and electronic tools. Tim Pauly’s discourse on hydroacoustics, and Peter Yates’s description on communications technology give a flavour of how we can now do things that were inconceivable just a few short years ago. Neal Young extols the future of satellite technology, already widely used in much of our program. With the advent of new types of sensors there is no telling what we will be able to study in a decade’s time.

Our scientific research program in Antarctica has reached a certain level of maturity. But good science never really grows up. With sophisticated and automated equipment delivering data to our desks every day we can devote more time and energy to the new, exciting things that lie around the corner. We are fortunate at the Australian Antarctic Division, and in the research institutions with which we work, to have access to the world’s most inventive brains, and to the support of people for whom it is true that the impossible can be done immediately but miracles might take a moment longer! The articles in this magazine can do no more than give a taste of the state-of-the-art but, alas, they do not adequately expose the human ingenuity and sheer hard work that has gone into making the instruments work in the harshest of all environments. I share the Director’s confidence in our ability to take the Australian scientific program in the Antarctic to new and exciting places. Oh, that Sir Edmond could come South with us now!

Professor Michael Stoddart
ANARE Chief Scientist,
Australian Antarctic Division