A centenary of science

As Australia prepares to celebrate the centenary of the Australasian Antarctic Expedition (AAE), led by Douglas Mawson, centenary project team member Kristin Yates reflects on what the AAE (and the subsequent British, Australian and New Zealand Antarctic Research Expedition) discovered and achieved and their relevance to our modern Antarctic program. A special issue of the Australian Antarctic Magazine, focusing on the centenary, will be published in May 2012.

One hundred years ago Douglas Mawson’s plans for the Australasian Antarctic Expedition (AAE) were about to come to fruition. The first Australian expedition to the Antarctic, and the first Antarctic expedition with a scientific focus was about to begin. At this time, much of Antarctica still lay as a great unknown. With incredible foresight, Douglas Mawson recognised the importance of Antarctica, writing in The Home of the Blizzard, “As sure as there is here a vast mass of land with potentialities, strictly limited at present, so surely will it be cemented some day within the universal plinth of things”. He correctly predicted that Antarctica would become a region of national and global importance, noting that “Bound up with the mystery of this seventh continent are volumes of data of vital importance to science, and economic problems which may become of moment in the near future”. Today it is widely accepted that Antarctica provides significant climate change knowledge that is key to the future of our planet. The Antarctic, climate change, and the long-term economic outlook for Australia are intrinsically linked.

The Mawson-led 1911–1914 AAE established three bases: Macquarie Island, the Shackleton Ice Shelf and Commonwealth Bay. The Macquarie Island base conducted scientific research and, importantly, established a radio relay station, which facilitated the first radio communication to Australia from Antarctica. The Shackleton Ice Shelf and Commonwealth Bay parties also undertook scientific research and explored extensively along the coast near these bases. The buildings at Commonwealth Bay (now known as Mawson’s Huts) were completed within a month of their arrival, and by winter, preparations were well underway for the several land expeditions of the following summer.

Mawson led the ill-fated Far Eastern sledging expedition, which included Belgrave Ninnis and Xavier Mertz. This expedition was to become a terrible tragedy, but also an extraordinary epic of lone survival. Five hundred kilometres from the base, Ninnis, his sled, and a dog team fell into a large crevasse and disappeared. With seriously depleted provisions, Mawson and Mertz continued on, progressively killing and eating their dogs to supplement their food supply. After 25 days the combined effects of hard physical exertion, starvation, grief, and possible vitamin A poisoning from eating dog livers, Mertz died. Mawson was left alone, over 160km from the base. Over 30 days he struggled through exhaustion, illness, injury, and his own fall into a crevasse, to make it back to the main base alive. One can only imagine how he felt seeing the Aurora departing on the horizon. A small party had waited to search for him; they remained for another year.

The AAE pursued scientific investigation in a wide range of areas. Out of the total 37 expedition members, 20 were scientists. On land and on the expedition ship Aurora, scientific research was conducted in geology, geography, cartography, geomagnetism, astronomy, meteorology, glaciology, oceanography, zoology, biology and botany. Data collected during this expedition is still used by scientists today for reference and comparison. For example, data collected by the expedition on Macquarie Island is being used today to help determine sea and land level change. The observations made by the AAE party are being compared, showing that not only is sea level rising, but Macquarie Island is subsiding, most probably still in response to an earthquake in 1924, exacerbating the local influence of sea level rise. The expedition also collected a range of organisms, many of which are now being compared with organisms collected today — providing important data for monitoring environmental change.

The 1929–1931 British, Australian and New Zealand Antarctic Research Expedition (BANZARE), also led by Mawson, discovered and traversed further coastline. The AAE and BANZARE together defined the limits to what is now the Australian Antarctic Territory — a claim covering 42 percent of the Antarctic continent. The Australian Antarctic Territory became permanently occupied in 1954, when Mawson station was established. Mawson is now the oldest continuously occupied station south of the Antarctic Circle. Today, expeditioners there, and at the other stations and locations visited by the Australian Antarctic program, continue the important work begun by the AAE.

As Antarctica grows in national and global importance, the Australian Antarctic Division conducts research in the Southern Ocean, the Antarctic and subantarctic, addressing critical issues such as climate change, the human footprint on Antarctica and the increasing demands for food security caused by human population growth.

As we observe how rapidly and profoundly our planet is changing, the need to better understand how Antarctica and the Southern Ocean influence the functioning and resilience of the earth system, and how they will respond to future changes, has become urgent. For Australians, added impetus is provided by the fact that what happens to the frozen continent and the Southern Ocean will have profound impacts on Australia. The decadal strategic plan for Australia’s Antarctic Science Program is designed to tackle these challenges. The plan focuses efforts within four thematic areas: climate processes and change; terrestrial and nearshore ecosystems — environmental change and conservation; Southern Ocean ecosystems — environmental change and conservation; and frontier science.

Some of this research will be conducted this summer during an Australian Antarctic Division voyage to Commonwealth Bay on the Aurora Australis, which departed Hobart on 5 January 2012. The Aurora Australis also took part in a commemorative flotilla on Hobart’s River Derwent, 100 years to the day after the AAE departed (2 December). These events are just some of many celebrations planned around Australia for the AAE centenary period. The Australian Antarctic Division is maintaining a website where event organisers can list their centenary events. Visit the Centenary website to find out what is being planned and how you can get involved.


Australian Antarctic Division