Oates Land to inland — Australian inspection activity in 2011

In January 2011 Australia conducted inspections of other nations’ Antarctic facilities, under the provisions of the Antarctic Treaty and its Protocol on Environmental Protection. These inspections followed on from successful inspections conducted in January 2010 (Australian Antarctic Magazine 18: 26–27, 2010). In addition to being an important mechanism that allows independent verification of compliance with these international agreements, inspections provide Australia with a chance to understand our region, interact with other nations in Antarctica, and demonstrate Australia’s commitment to the Antarctic Treaty system.

The inspection team was comprised of Dr Tony Worby and Ms Gillian Slocum of the Australian Antarctic Division, and Mr Tim Bolotnikoff of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade.

After landing at the United States’ Pegasus Runway in Antarctica, the inspection team travelled between locations in Australia’s ski-equipped C-212, covering approximately 4940km over eight days.

The first stop was Italy’s summer-only Mario Zucchelli station, in Terra Nova Bay. While an inspection of the station was not conducted, the inspection team toured the station facilities and talked to many scientists about their research and spent time on the stations’ research vessel, Skua, observing some of the marine science research being undertaken.

The team then deployed to the coast of Oates Land, around 600km from Mario Zucchelli, and observed the Russian station, Leningradskaya, from the air. Located on a 300 metre-high nunatak, a few kilometres south of the coast, Leningradskaya station has not been occupied since 1991. The inspection team completed approximately 20 low level flights over the station over 50 minutes, with the rear ramp of the C-212 providing a particularly good vantage point from which to view the station and take photos.

On the last day of their stay at Mario Zucchelli station, the inspection team flew by helicopter across the bay to inspect Germany’s Gondwana station, and to visit the site of the Republic of Korea’s proposed new year-round station, Jang Bogo.

Gondwana is a summer-only station and was unoccupied during the 2010–11 season. As the facility was secured at the time of the visit, the inspection was limited to the exterior of the station buildings and facilities.

The Republic of Korea intends to commence constructing a new station in the Terra Nova Bay area in December 2012 and recently circulated a draft Comprehensive Environmental Evaluation to Antarctic Treaty Parties for consideration. The inspection team’s visit to the proposed station site will help inform Australia’s review of this document.

The team then flew over the trans-Antarctic mountains to Concordia station, at Dome C on the Antarctic Plateau. The year-round station, which is jointly operated by France and Italy, is 3233m above sea level. The altitude and extreme cold can induce Acute Mountain Sickness in visitors, but the inspection team suffered only mild shortness of breath.

The team spent a day with several scientists, learning more about the research programs underway at Concordia station. A particular highlight was talking with the glaciologists about the drilling program, which involved extraction of the oldest Antarctic ice core between 1999 and 2004, providing a climate record that extends back more than 700 000 years.

Russian Federation’s Vostok station, 560km from Concordia, was the next stop. Vostok station sits above sub-glacial Lake Vostok, hidden under 3700 metre-thick ice. It is the coldest place on earth, having recorded a temperature of −89.2°C in winter 1983. The station was opened in 1957 and is occupied all year round. The team inspected the station, with a focus on the major scientific project to obtain a deep ice core and investigate Lake Vostok. The current focus of the project is to sample lake water. The inspection team were present when an ice core was brought to the surface from a depth of 3684m.

The inspection team were warmly welcomed with friendship and openness by personnel at all stations visited and inspected. Australia would like to formally thank France, Italy, the Russian Federation and the United States for the generous hospitality and logistics support they provided to the inspection team.

Australia will report on the inspections to the Antarctic Treaty Consultative Meeting.

Gillian Slocum
Manager, Territories, Environment and Treaties Section, Australian Antarctic Division