Modern Antarctic Program turns 70

Just over 70 years ago, the maiden expedition of Australia’s Antarctic Program established the first of the nation’s research stations in the southern polar region.

Australian Antarctic Division Director, Dr Nick Gales, said the 1947 Heard Island expedition marked the beginning of Australia’s permanent presence in the region.

“After the Second World War, Australian heroic era explorer Sir Douglas Mawson lobbied the Government to build on his early exploration of the continent and undertake expeditions to Antarctica and establish permanent stations there,” Dr Gales said.

“The Government agreed and funded three scientific expeditions over the summer of 1947–48 to the sub-Antarctic Heard Island, Macquarie Island, and the Antarctic continent.”

The 14-strong team bound for the wild and rugged Heard Island was the first to leave Australia, departing Fremantle on 28 November 1947.

The expedition sailed across the Southern Ocean on a Royal Australian Navy ship (HMALST 3501), laying claim to Heard Island and McDonald Islands and establishing a research station at Atlas Cove, which operated until 1955.

“These early expeditioners faced harsh conditions with rain three days out of four, temperatures hovering between −1°C and 5°C and an average wind speed of about 30 kilometres per hour,” Dr Gales said.

A second expedition set sail for Antarctica on HMAS Wyatt Earp in December 1947, however mechanical problems, bad weather and sea ice stopped the voyage from reaching the icy continent.

The third voyage that summer was to Macquarie Island, with an expedition landing on 7 March 1948.

Despite not being able to reach the Antarctic continent in 1947, Australia pushed ahead with plans to establish a permanent presence on the ice, and in 1954 Mawson research station was commissioned.

“Seven decades on, we now have three Antarctic research stations and one on sub-Antarctic Macquarie Island, an air link between Antarctica and Australia, and a state-of-the-art icebreaker under construction,” Dr Gales said.

The Australian Antarctic Program was originally known as the Australian National Antarctic Research Expedition (ANARE).

Eliza Grey
Australian Antarctic Division