A summer of many challenges

Australia’s 2013–14 Antarctic summer season marked the 100th anniversary of the summer in which Douglas Mawson and the six remaining members of the 1911–14 Australasian Antarctic Expedition (AAE) finally returned to Australia. The AAE party had spent an unplanned additional year at Cape Denison after Mawson, the only survivor of the disastrous Far Eastern Party, had arrived back only hours after his ship had departed for the winter.

In The Home of the Blizzard, Mawson records the menu of the Midwinter dinner in 1913 making an allusion to Shakespeare’s Richard III in referring to that last winter at Cape Denison as ‘the winter of our discontent’. For the Australian Antarctic Division, the summer of 2013 has been one not so much of ‘our discontent’, as of our having to respond to many challenges. Most of these challenges were a consequence of an extent and thickness of sea ice around eastern Antarctica which have rarely been experienced in the 100 years since Mawson returned from Cape Denison.

Before the season commenced, it looked as if our biggest challenge was to deliver the Aurora Basin North ice core drilling project (see Hard core science), which aimed to drill a 300m-long ice core at a remote location 550km inland from Casey station. Our plan involved three field team members being deployed by overland traverse, who would then establish the camp and prepare a landing strip for a ski-equipped Basler BT-67 aircraft. This aircraft would bring the rest of the team and equipment from Casey and then, at the end of the project, transfer people, equipment and the all-important ice cores back to Casey, from where they would return to Australia by ship or plane. The traverse leg of the mission was made possible by our good friends at the French Antarctic Program, who conveyed our three people, in early December, over a distance of 1300km from Dumont d’Urville Station.

In the end, the Aurora Basin North project was completed on time and without any significant hitches, achieving all its scientific goals — a superb achievement for all involved. So, contrary to our expectations, it was not this project where we faced our major challenges over the summer, but in the delivery of our shipping program.

We had originally planned that our shipping schedule for the Aurora Australis would be more limited than normal — only 125 days at sea — due to the deferral until 2014–15 of a major marine science voyage because of cost pressures. As things turned out, the unexpectedly difficult sea ice conditions required us to spend 193 days at sea. This included 170 days on the Aurora Australis and a further 22 days on L’Astrolabe, the flagship vessel of the French Antarctic Program, which they kindly allowed us to sub-charter.

Our likely problems with sea ice became apparent early in the summer, when Voyage 1 — the resupply voyage to Davis — was delayed on its way both to and from Davis, putting us 21 days behind schedule. This required us to combine Voyage 2 (to Macquarie Island) and Voyage 3 (to Casey) in order to recover the time lost. This new Voyage 2/3 arrived at Casey only five days late but — as part of a chain of events which received worldwide media coverage — was then redirected towards Commonwealth Bay by the Australian Rescue Coordination Centre to assist in the rescue of the Akademik Shokalskiy. This vessel was undertaking a private voyage to Cape Denison to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the conclusion of Mawson’s ‘winter of discontent’, and had become beset by sea ice. With the cooperation of L’Astrolabe and the Chinese flagship Antarctic vessel, the Xue Long, the passengers were successfully evacuated from the distressed vessel and taken by the Aurora Australis first to Casey, to complete the resupply, and then back to Hobart.

By this stage, we had also experienced a serious accident involving one of our helicopters on its way back to Davis from visiting a penguin colony near the Amery Ice Shelf. The pilot and two passengers were all injured, but we were able to use our aviation network (the Basler BT-67, a Twin Otter, and our A319 Airbus which operates to Wilkins runway) to return them quickly to Hobart for emergency medical treatment, from which all are recovering well. The Australian Antarctic Division responded successfully to this emergency through the coordinated efforts of almost 100 people, ranging from medical and operational staff on the ice, to a large number of head office staff, plus excellent forecasting support from the Bureau of Meteorology and advice from other external parties.

Voyage 4 to Mawson — also featuring visits at Casey, to collect the Aurora Basin North ice core samples, and Davis — finally departed on 29 January, 12 days later than originally scheduled. As the Aurora Australis approached Mawson, it became clear that the ice was too thick for the ship to penetrate and a decision was made for the vessel to return to Hobart and to equip it with long range helicopters and other equipment required to undertake a station resupply by air. An unscheduled Voyage 6 departed for Mawson on 9 March, while L’Astrolabe was used to undertake the scheduled Voyage 5 to Macquarie Island.

The four helicopters deployed on Voyage 6 successfully delivered (in 1000 litre tanks) 50 000 litres of fuel — the bare minimum required to keep Mawson functional through to next summer. It also delivered 70 tonnes of priority cargo by sling load, and a very relieved group of 2014 Mawson wintering expeditioners who had been unexpectedly forced to return to Hobart on Voyage 4. This complex operation was completed more quickly than had been planned and, as a result, we were delighted to welcome back the Aurora Australis and, most importantly, the extremely patient 2013 Mawson wintering expeditioners, to Hobart on Easter Saturday (19 April). The ship’s return brought an extraordinarily complex and difficult season to a resoundingly successful conclusion. We are now busy preparing for whatever challenges the 2014–15 season is going to throw at us!

Rob Wooding
General Manager, Support Centre, Australian Antarctic Division