High-tech homes for million-year ice core mission

Cold Comfort

Video transcript

Imagine travelling in a tractor convoy deep into Antarctica as the temperature drops below minus 40.

The Australian Antarctic Division is planning an inland traverse through the ice, at 10 kilometres an hour.               

Anthony Hull, AAD Traverse Systems Project Lead:
To do that for approximately 1200 km, you’re looking at about 12 to 14 days of travel.

The convoy will travel from Casey Research Station to the site of the search for the million year ice core.

To make the journey, expeditioners will need somewhere to live and sleep, in a home away from home.

Taylor Brothers Marine has won the multi-million dollar contract to assemble the vans in its Hobart workshop.   

Phil Taylor, Director of Taylor Brothers Marine:
We’ve had a long association with the Antarctic Division, my first job with them was in the early 1980s so it’s been a bit of a long relationship.

Planning the seven traverse and remote station vans has been years in the making.
Piecing them together is a painstaking task.
The priority is staying safe and staying warm.     

Phil Taylor, Director of Taylor Brothers Marine:
The Antarctic Division gave us what they wanted in a model and we’ve taken that and detailed that and added the bits that we can provide assistance with.”

Anthony Hull, AAD Traverse Systems Project Lead:
This is where people will come in out of the cold. It’ll be their sanctuary where they’ll warm up, they’ll fuel up with food and to have a layout in a space where people aren’t standing next to each and elbowing each other, it’s vital we get this living space right.”

The vans will be delivered later this year before their first journey south.   

Anthony Hull, AAD Traverse Systems Project Lead:
No doubt when we get this delivered to Casey Station and finally assemble it on the sleds and put the whole capability together, then we can see the whole picture, and that will be a very exciting moment.

[end transcript]

workshop with mobile vans under construction
Traverse vans under construction (Photo: Dan Broun)
diagram of traverse configurationroute map from Casey to south of Dome Ctraverse vans in workshop under construction

If you were travelling in a tractor convoy deep into the Antarctic continent for weeks on end, with temperatures dropping below minus 40, what sort of living space would you like to retreat into?

For a team of Australian expeditioners taking part in the first stage of the search for a million-year-old ice core, they’ll be enjoying the comforts of home in specially designed accommodation vans.

Hobart’s Taylor Bros Marine Pty Ltd has been awarded a $2.6 million contract to build the living vans for the traverse mission and the mobile inland station.

The Australian Antarctic Division’s Anthony Hull is leading the Traverse Project.

“The speed at which this procession will travel is approximately 10 kilometres an hour. To do this for approximately 1200 kilometres, you’re looking at about 12 to 14 days of solid travel,” Mr Hull said.

“The traverse living space is crucial as this is where people will come in out of the cold. It’ll be their sanctuary where they’ll warm up and they’ll fuel with food. It’s vital we get this space right.”

Mr Hull said his team had studied American, French and British Antarctic traverse programs in recent years to help design the vans.

“When the vans are delivered to Casey research station and assembled on the sleds and the whole capability is put together, then we can see the whole picture. That will be an exciting moment,” he said.

“The wealth of experience that Taylor Brothers bring to this design and build is a very good asset for us.”

Taylor Brother’s Director Phil Taylor has been working with the AAD since the 1980s and said the latest contract had come at a good time for his business, amid the COVID pandemic.

He said assembling the vans to fit the extreme conditions expected was a painstaking task.

“For the special climate, the requirements are for temperatures down to minus 50 and the remote station vans will be ‘winterised’ on site,” he said.

“To stop frosting inside, there can be no cold air paths from outside to inside. Those vans are required to withstand down to minus 85 degrees.”

It’s expected they’ll be exposed to temperatures ranging from minus 25 to about minus 40 degrees.

Each has been carefully weighed for shipping and the traverse.

Taylor Bros is assembling a kitchen vans including mess area, showers and waterless incinerator toilets, as well as sleeping vans, one for 10 traverse expeditioners and 4 more for a total of 16, at the remote site.

They’re expected to be delivered to the AAD later this year, before their transfer to Casey research station on the new icebreaker, RSV Nuyina.

Scientists are expected to spend four or five summers drilling down three kilometres into the ice cap south of Dome C, to collect the ice cores.

The Antarctic ice sheet provides a unique record of past climate, and a major scientific focus is to drill an ice core reaching back over a million years ago.

The chemical composition of the ice reveals information about past temperatures, snowfall, volcanic events and solar variations.

Air bubbles trapped in the ice directly record past changes in atmospheric composition including concentrations of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gasses.

It’s hoped this work will unravel details about the natural drivers of the Earth’s ice age cycles and thus better predict how the ice sheet may evolve in the future.

The Federal Government contributed $45 million in 2016, towards Australia’s overland traverse capability in Antarctica over the next 20 years.