The Australian Antarctic Program (AAP) has successfully wrapped up the 2021–2022 season after an incredible array of scientific and logistical accomplishments.

Three ships, a fleet of aircraft, 500 expeditioners, all backed by personnel in Hobart, have helped bring together a season still challenged by the pandemic.

Australia’s new icebreaker RSV Nuyina made history following its first voyage to Antarctica in January.

The Million Year Ice Core drill was flown south, with teams navigating challenging weather to undertake limited testing.

Meanwhile, 1000 tonnes of cargo was delivered to Casey research station in preparation for the inland traverse to the ice core drill site.

Mawson saw its first full resupply in two years, while 350 tonnes of cargo arrived on Macquarie Island to modernise the station.

The team at Davis were changed over by intracontinental plane but the station still hosted all three ships operating this season, making it a busy time at ‘the Riviera of the south’.

Australian Antarctic Division (AAD) Director Kim Ellis thanked the hundreds of personnel and expeditioners for their hard work on land, sea and air.

“This season had seen more ships and planes in motion than any other time before. The scale was breathtaking,” Mr Ellis said.

“Nothing is easy when it comes to Antarctica and every year the effort to deliver people, supplies and science is inspiring.”

Significantly, the AAD was able to prevent the transmission of COVID-19 to its Antarctic stations, ships and flights, despite increased challenges from state border openings during the season.

Nuyina leads the way

Australia’s new $528m icebreaker lived up to its title of Antarctic triathlete during its maiden voyage.

AAD General Manager Operations and Safety Charlton Clark said the program was still balancing baby steps with triumphs.

Nuyina is new to the program so we’re taking a crawl-walk-run approach but in its first season it’s already delivered some outstanding outcomes,” Mr Clark said.

The vessel transported helicopters to Davis, before sailing to Casey to refuel the station.

Its second voyage in February saw it return to Davis before heading north to resupply Macquarie Island.

Nuyina is now destined for Singapore, where it will go into dry dock for scheduled maintenance.

A lot to unpack

This season saw the largest single station resupply ever undertaken with the delivery of traverse cargo to Casey.

More than 1000 tonnes, half of it sleds and custom-designed living quarters for a mobile station were unloaded in Newcomb Bay.

Both the station and ship teams worked tirelessly for a month hauling the cargo ashore.

“Effectively, we’ve just delivered another station to Antarctica to support the search for a million year ice core,” Mr Clark said.

Mawson’s moment

There were smiles all round as Mawson station received its first resupply in two years, after sea ice prevented the mission last season.

“Mawson is always a challenge to resupply, it’s our most distant station at the end of the line and quite often the ice conditions around the station are incredibly challenging,” Mr Clark said.

Happy Dragon glided into Horseshoe Harbour under blue skies, restocking the station, followed by chartered icebreaker, Aiviq, carrying fuel.

Expeditioners were picked up for a lift home, with both ships then sailing onto Davis to do the same jobs again.

Home renovations

Nuyina looks impressive at 160 metres long, but it was little more than an orange speck in the ocean alongside the magnificent Macquarie Island.

The ship answered the challenge, however, changing over expeditioners, topping up the station’s fuel tanks and sending supplies through the surf using amphibious vehicles.

An extra 350 tonnes of construction material and equipment now sits on the station ready for the Macquarie Island Modernisation Program.

Help from above

The AAP once again spread its wings with a successful aviation season, flying expeditioners to Wilkins Aerodrome from October to March.

Flying to Antarctica is a highly complex task, challenged by unpredictable weather.

An Airbus A319 was the workhorse of the season, with strong support from the Royal Australian Air Force with a C-17A Globemaster transporting cargo and people.

Ski-equipped Baslers and Twin Otters flew between stations on the continent.

“These are capabilities we’ll build on in future years. We’re really excited about reintroducing medium lift helicopters into the program next season,” Mr Clark said.

Keeping COVID out of Antarctica

The AAD’s Polar Medicine Unit successfully prevented the transmission of COVID to ships, planes and Antarctic stations.

This was done using a careful approach of pre-departure quarantine, vaccination and testing.

Adding to the challenge was the opening of Tasmania’s border to other states in the middle of the season.

Science on the ground

AAD Chief Scientist Prof Nicole Webster said COVID still constrained science projects over the summer months.

“Regardless, we had a number of teams from multiple different universities and the Antarctic Division undertaking field work at Casey station and we also had some really great science wins from the commissioning of RSV Nuyina,” Prof Webster said.

Field teams examined the health of Antarctic mosses, while shallow ice cores were extracted from Law Dome.

Australia’s Million Year Ice Core drill was also partially tested, following some challenges caused by weather and COVID.

Overall 49 science projects were undertaken, including soil remediation, and retrieving whale moorings, rocks near glaciers, and krill monitoring systems.

Peering into the depths

While Nuyina wasn’t tasked for icebreaking this season, it did break a few science news stories.

Among them was the mapping of an underwater canyon near the Vanderford Glacier, 2200 metres deep and at least 55 kilometres long.

A little-studied seamount, higher than Mount Kosciuszko, was also closely examined by the ship’s acoustics team en-route to Davis.

And for the first time, Nuyina’s unique wet well was used to collect Antarctic krill in perfect condition, allowing scientists to bring the keystone species safely back to Australia for future research.

Preparations are underway for science voyages next season.

“We’re incredibly excited about our plans. The very first voyage Nuyina will do for science is into the marginal ice zone,” Prof Webster said.

“We have very little knowledge of all the biological and physical processes and how they interact in that marginal ice zone. So the discoveries there will be very exciting.”

On screens and in the galleries

Australians have always cared deeply about the frozen wilderness beyond our shores, and they have a chance to learn more through the media and arts visits AAD supported this season.

ABC reporter Henry Belot documented Nuyina’s maiden voyage in detail for print, radio and television.

White Spark Pictures joined the journey to Davis and Macquarie Island and are constructing a Virtual Reality tour of the ship.

Renowned artist Janet Laurence was also able to fill a lifetime ambition to see the continent, with her upcoming works examining the world that surrounds Casey.