Australia’s leading Antarctic scientists have gathered in Canberra to showcase research and plot the path forward for science down south.

The 2022 Australian Antarctic Division Science Symposium was a comprehensive wrap-up of climate science, the Southern Ocean and new technology on the horizon.

Australian Antarctic Division Chief Scientist Professor Nicole Webster said much of East Antarctica remains a mystery to scientists.

“We understand a very small footprint of East Antarctica and much of our science is based around our three continental research stations,” Prof Webster said.

“With the science challenges that we're facing, we need to know much more about East Antarctica so that we can understand status and trends, how is the environment responding to climate change and what's happening to the biodiversity?”

Where are the whales?

Finding the planet’s largest animals in the Southern Ocean is still like looking for a needle in a haystack.

AAD Marine Mammal research scientist Dr Virginia Andrews-Goff is used to tracking whales in the open ocean, sometimes from small boats.

But change is on the horizon.

“I think there'll be a shift away from putting us in small boats on the water to get close to whales. With drones, we can do a lot of the work like tagging by flying remotely from the vessel,” Dr Andrews-Goff said.

“We need to know all kinds of things about whales in the Southern Ocean, like where they go and how they feed. By understanding their habitat that's important to them, we can look to protect that habitat.”

Protecting penguins

Renowned AAD seabird ecologist Dr Barbara Wienecke also delivered a presentation on threats to emperor penguins.

Catastrophic events in recent years such as storms and sea ice break-up have affected colonies.

“We need to understand where and how often these events occur,” Dr Wienecke said.

“Current models predict significant losses of colonies and reduction in the global population by 2050.”

Emperor penguins rely on stable sea ice for breeding and raising chicks.

There are 60 known colonies in Antarctica, with 22 in East Antarctica in the Australian Antarctic Territory.

‘There be dragons’

In the vast wilderness, having a good map is critically important.

Australian Antarctic Data Centre Manager Dr Johnathan Kool delivered his presentation on the need for modern maps using new technology.

“Many areas throughout the Australian Antarctic Territory are not well known and that's part of what we want to do with our mapping program. We need to go out and get a better understanding of these areas,” Dr Kool said.

“New technologies have given us a golden opportunity for exploration.”

“On old maps, people used to put ‘Here be dragons’ in dangerous or uncharted areas. Well, let's go out and find them.”

Life under the ice

Another information gap is East Antarctica’s benthic communities – marine organisms living on the seafloor under the ice.

AAD benthic ecologist Dr Jonny Stark said most of Australia’s knowledge had been gathered from the coast near Casey and Davis research stations.

But the rest remains largely a mystery.

“We've never even really had a look at Mawson where we’ve had a station for more than fifty years,” Dr Stark said.

“Near Davis station we have really special communities like reefs made out of tube worms under the frozen fjords.”

“These are the sorts of things we think we might find as we expand our research into other areas in East Antarctica.”

Cold gold

This summer will see the first of the 1200 kilometre traverses from Casey research station to Little Dome C to commence drilling for an ice core at least a million years old.

It’s hoped the sample will provide answers on why the ice age cycles shifted from a regular 41,000 year cycle to an ice age every 100,000 years.

“We've been working for more than a decade to see the ice core project come to fruition. To see the traverse actually reach the drill site this summer and begin drilling is a very exciting prospect,” AAD palaeoclimatologist Dr Tas van Ommen said.

“The thing I like about ice core research is that it's tangible. It's almost like tree rings. You get to see not only visible layers, but chemical layers in the ice that reveal its history.”

The AAD is also seeking answers to questions around how much and how fast Antarctica is responding to a warming climate.

Monitoring will help identify trends to understand if ice sheet collapse is possible within decades to centuries.

Getting it right

The symposium also heard from experts in the fields of krill, fisheries management and invasive species. Prof Webster said the event was a chance for science and policy makers to come together so that they can work more closely in the years ahead.

“We’re really starting the conversation by bringing the entire Antarctic Program together for a shared purpose around agreed science priorities” Prof Webster said.

“The AAD’s engineering expertise is marrying big ideas and innovative technology to enable ambitious science.”

“Climate change is at the heart of our science, because the future of Antarctica is the future of the world.”