Australia’s summer of science in Antarctica gets underway today as the research vessel Aurora Australis leaves on the first voyage south.

The Minister for the Environment and Heritage, Senator Ian Campbell, said two key projects on the voyage this season were the Impact of Human Activities in Antarctica near Casey station and the Amery Ice Shelf Ocean Research (AMISOR) project inland from Davis station.

Senator Campbell said this would be the last year in which Australia will be solely dependent on moving expeditioners by sea to Antarctica. From next summer, Australia will be trialling its new intercontinental air transport link between Hobart and Antarctica. Scheduled flights are planned to commence in late 2007.

Impact of human activities in Antarctica

Senator Campbell said Australia would use innovative new techniques to attempt the first full-scale on-site oil spill clean-up in Antarctica — a significant step towards cleaning up the poor practices of more than two decades.

“It is estimated that throughout Antarctica there are between one and 10 million cubic metres of contaminated soil and waste. We can’t be more exact because nobody is entirely sure of the extent of the contamination,” Senator Campbell said.

“What we do know is that in the past there was scant regard for the effects on the environment of pollutants such as fuel and other contaminants, and all types of rubbish generated on Antarctic stations were simply tossed away — sometimes onto the sea ice in the hope of it being carried away. All countries with a presence in Antarctica were equally guilty. However, since 1986, we have brought our rubbish back from all the Australian Antarctic stations.

“In 1991 Australia led the world in providing comprehensive protection to the Antarctic environment through the Madrid Protocol — Australia now leads the way in cleaning up Antarctica.”

The Australian Antarctic Division’s Head of the Impact of Human Activities in Antarctica Programme, Dr Martin Riddle, will lead the six-month project at Australia’s Casey station.

“There are two parts to this project — terrestrial and marine,” Dr Riddle said.

“On land we will test a new approach to remediating the sites of past oil spills. The sheer volume of contaminated material in Antarctica means it will never be possible to return it all to the country of origin. We need to be innovative if we are really to make a dent in this problem.

“In the sea we will revisit sites as part of on-going monitoring to ensure the success of the removal of 1000 cubic metres of waste material from Thala Valley tip near Casey in 2004. The monitoring should confirm that removal did not cause additional spread of contaminants. On the contrary, we hope to document the start of recovery of marine communities adjacent to the old tip.

“Most of our old tip sites were located on the foreshore meaning there has been run-off into the surrounding waters. So we are looking not only at cleaning up on-land contamination but how that might also benefit the health of the marine environment,” Dr Riddle said.

Amery Ice Shelf ocean research

Senator Campbell said six scientists would spend 12 weeks on the Amery Ice Shelf where they will drill boreholes through the ice to gain access to the seabed and the ocean cavity beneath the floating shelf to gain a greater understanding of global climate processes.

“The Amery Ice Shelf — the third largest ice shelf in Antarctica — has been studied by the Australian Antarctic programme in several campaigns over the past 50 years. The current Amery Ice Shelf Ocean Research (AMISOR) project was established in 1999 when the importance of ice-ocean interaction became fully apparent,” Senator Campbell said.

Australian Antarctic Division glaciologist and leader of the AMISOR project, Mike Craven, said that work was continuing towards gaining a greater understanding of the role of the Amery Ice Shelf in the ice sheet mass budget and in driving ocean circulation.

“As much as 50 per cent of the total ice draining from the Lambert Glacier system — the continent’s largest glacier system — melts at the base of the Amery within the first hundred kilometres of becoming afloat. Some of this later refreezes to the base of the shelf where it is thinner further north,” Mr Craven said.

“The modification of ocean water properties that results from melting and freezing processes under ice shelves may be important in the formation of Antarctic Bottom Water and critical in global ocean circulation.

“We will use a hot water drill to bore two holes through the ice shelf, one to a depth approaching 800 metres of ice thickness, several hundred metres deeper than we have previously drilled.

“A range of instruments will be used to take short ice cores at various levels, sediment samples, and to collect data that will help in analysing ice-flow dynamics, temperature, salinity, circulation beneath the shelf and sea floor history. A video camera will also be lowered through the bore holes to inspect ice characteristics and the possibility of biological communities on the seabed.”

Aurora Australis is scheduled to depart Hobart at 5pm today.