A major Australian Antarctic Division collaborative science program will take a significant step forward today with the departure of German and Australian scientists aboard the Antarctic icebreaker, Aurora Australis.

The Prince Charles Mountains Expedition of Germany–Australia (PCMEGA) is a major field program that will improve our understanding of the geological and glaciological structures of Antarctica. Knowledge of the processes by which landform and ice interact will lead to greater understanding of the consequences of sustained global warming.

The scientists will travel to the rarely visited, remote and spectacular mountain range 500km south of Mawson station to investigate the physical history and past climates in the most poorly understood mountain outcrop area in eastern Antarctica.

The Prince Charles Mountains’ current exposure above the ice plateau reveals the best geological cross section through the east Antarctic shield, knowledge of which is fundamental to understanding the geological structure of Antarctica.

As Australia and eastern Antarctica shared the same piece of Earth’s crust 1000 million years ago and have similar geological characteristics, the research will also teach us much more about the physical processes that formed Australia.

Planning and preparation for the expedition began in 2001 and in January 2002 an agreement was signed between Australia and Germany for joint funding.

Members of the German–Australian program have spent the past week on final preparations before heading south. The team of 35 includes geologists, geophysicists, helicopter and fixed-wing pilots and engineers, field guides and a medical doctor.

A key feature of the program will be the use of a fixed-wing aircraft from Canada. The Twin Otter is a high wing, twin engine, turbo prop aircraft noted for its short take off and landing performance and is well suited for polar work with the capability to land on snow and ice on skis.

This versatile aircraft has been flown from Canada to Davis station, a journey of more than 20,000km taking 13 days.

It will be used primarily for transporting expeditioners and cargo from Davis station to the Prince Charles Mountains and for aerial survey work.

Two Squirrel helicopters also will be used to support geological field parties.

A forward party left Mawson station last month on a four-week trip to haul food, fuel and equipment to establish a base camp at Mt Cresswell in the Prince Charles Mountain region in readiness for the arrival of the main party.

The many tonnes of cargo, towed on sleds pulled by three Caterpillar D7 tractors, included around 200 ration packs, over 500 drums of aircraft fuel, tents and safety equipment.

For the five team members, the more than 500km trip to Mt Cresswell brought its share of obstacles.

They frequently faced very difficult conditions en route with temperatures sometimes as low as minus 50°C, strong winds, sastrugi up to three metres and occasional mechanical problems due to the cold.

Expeditioners will leave aboard the Aurora Australis today and return in March 2003.

Aurora Australis will also transport other scientific and support personnel to Mawson and Davis stations for the three-month summer season.

On its return the ship will bring back expeditioners who have spent the winter at those stations.