Survival training, remediation work, and New Year iceberg cruises

Survival training

On Wednesday 4th January our group headed out for their long awaited survival training. After much ado and retrieval of forgotten items, we set off after scones at smoko to our spot on the Bailey Peninsula — a mixture of people carrying backpacks and using sleds. The sun was shining. What more could we all want?

We arrived at our camp in time for lunch and a cup of tea, which was made from snow after a lesson on how to use the stoves.

After lunch we had some practice in setting up a tent in the snow and then we geared up again for the navigation exercise. This involved walking around the peninsula for the afternoon so that we could learn how to use compasses and maps… but I think the main reason was to build up an appetite for the dried rations and to make us tired so we slept well.

We were the first survival training group to try out the new snow shoes that arrived on station at resupply, and with the snow softening they proved to be rather useful. One of the party thought his big feet would do the job well enough… alas, that wasn’t the case. Lucky for Jason he had a trusted friend to dig his boot out while he basked in the sun trying to dry his saturated sock. Unfortunately his boot was sitting in a nice puddle of icy water at the bottom of the hole.

A mid-afternoon rest with some BBQ shapes and chocolate overlooking Shirley Island was needed by some; others threw snowballs at those who were resting. Then it was back to camp for dinner.

We were just finishing off the washing up when we had a group of visitors drop by. There was a group of strange looking penguins — an odd sight as there was a very dominant male, leader of the pack, who was trailed by a small harem of rather good looking young female penguins. This gave a delightful interlude to our evening out!

After the head penguin led off his ladies there wasn’t much left to do but to climb in the bivvy and try to sleep. With the sun still high in the sky this was more of a challenge for some than for others. Not all of us slept so well as the 9.5 hours achieved by our Plant Inspector!

Rising at a leisurely 7 am, a quick pack up of our bivvies, a review of learnings by our Field Training Officer, Ian, and we trudged back to the red shed for a nice hot cuppa and a warm bed.

Remediation work

Hydrocarbon contamination in Antarctic environments can pose potential toxic and long-term effects on the sensitive ecosystems. A 1999 fuel spill at Casey Station resulted in contaminant migration downstream through permafrost. Elevated hydrocarbon levels were detected in the soil surrounding the source. The clean up approach required a low cost remediation technique suitable for the Antarctic conditions and to allow signatory nations to the Antarctic Treaty to meet obligations under Annex III of the Environmental Protocol.

This was the first major instance in Antarctica of a comprehensive remediation strategy which involves in situ managing of a contaminated site using a Permeable Reactive Barrier (PRB). The PRB was installed in 2005 and later refurbished in 2010. The ex situ strategy, implemented in 2010–11, employs active treatment techniques in the form of biopiles (excavated contaminated soil piled in a contained treatment cell), nutrient addition and aeration systems specifically tailored to the site, soil conditions and risks associated with Antarctic operations and the environment. The final stage of the remediation approach includes building a comprehensive method of establishing set endpoints as there are no set guidelines for acceptable hydrocarbon levels in soil and groundwater in Antarctica.

Soil was excavated in 2011 and placed in cells designed with geosynthetic composite liner systems using clay liners, high density polyethylene (HDPE) geomembranes and geotextiles. Research is also focused on the long-term performance of these geosynthetics to impede contaminant migration with exposure to the Antarctic’s cold and dry climatic conditions and freeze-thaw cycling. Contaminant migration through the biopile barrier system is monitored in the field using a system of monitoring pipes and sample extraction areas.

When our remediation team arrived back in November to dig out the site from snow, we were able to take our first samples of the soil from biopiles (to check for changes in concentration since the previous season) and from monitoring tubes located below the piles and between the layers of liners. We even painstakingly dug out sacrificial pieces of liner material from underneath the soil. Since then, the biopiles have each been sampled again, soil has been turned by the excavator to aerate and the vacuum aeration system has been switched on.

This season will see the construction of yet another biopile or two, depending how much soil is removed from the remaining contaminated areas.

It is expected that the biopiles will operate for a number of seasons with increased monitoring and sampling during the warm summer season.

Simply messing about in boats

Lets face it. We are all tourists at heart. The work is good here, the people are great, but what most of us really came down here for was to see “it”, Antarctica, the great big wild white wilderness that remains elusive on every adventurer’s list of “must see” travel destinations. To be honest you can sometimes be on station and feel like you could be anywhere, not at the end of the earth. There’s the smell of diesel, the sound of tractors reversing, the drone of the powerhouse and a continuous hubbub of activity. To bring in the New Year, thanks to the incredible efforts of our boaties (Hully, Dave and Micky), we were able to leave the confines of station and get a taste of the real wilds of Antarctica.

In groups of six we donned our mustang suits and boarded our inflatable rubber boats (IRBs) with a full artillery of cameras, go-pros, spare batteries and gigabytes galore. We zoomed away from the wharf, but soon killed the engines and got out the oars to quietly approach a leopard seal sprawled out asleep on the ice, with a very cheeky Adelie penguin dancing mischievously close to its head. The sound of the powerhouse was gone to be replaced by the continuous rapid fire of cameras as hardy expeditioners transformed into excited penguin paparazzi. Chasing the perfect shot, we followed a group of proposing penguins around the point to Shirley Island, where the colourful language of the paparazzi continued as the camera button was pressed a fraction of a second too late… yet again. A confused Adelie created the perfect photo opportunity when it leapt out of the water on to our IRB, but we were all so shocked that by the time we had managed to heave our hefty lenses into place it had decided that we were boring and had turned to jump back into the water.

After a chocolate break we turned our noses towards the open ocean and went in search of “David’s berg”. Dave Burrows is our arts fellow who is taking stereoscopic images of a particular berg, that as a result has now acquired his name. It is an exceptionally spectacular berg that has multiple turrets with an amphitheater in the centre, and looks like a castle on the horizon as you approach it. When we arrived at the berg, Dan, our wintering chippy, called out “How on earth do we describe this to someone back home?” which is exactly what I am struggling to do here. It is almost impossible to describe what it is like to be in the presence of an iceberg. They are intricate and beautiful and majestic and being near them makes you feel incredibly small. You can see their depths spanning out beneath the water in an array of aquamarine colours and you realize how just true the saying is “just the tip of the iceberg”. 780 photos later and I am still nowhere near to capturing just how beautiful they are.

The boaties ran numerous trips over two days so that everyone on station had the chance to experience Antarctica from the ocean. They deserve a very big thank you from all of us! What a fantastic way to bring in 2012.