It has been another big week at Davis with trips out into the deep field, a visit to the neighbours, more seabird work and everyone out on recreational jollies.

Trajer Hut replacement — Phase 3

With the old melon hut and deck removed from Trajer Ridge, a new deck was needed for the new melon so four of us were tasked to build it. Myself (Millsy), Rohan, Neville and Dave B got to fly out there and do the ‘work’. What a job. The deck was completed and it’s a thing of beauty. The following may or may not be how I pictured the work happening, in my romanticism:

It fell to us. Without shelter, we would surely perish. The wind howled down from the plateau like a wraith, its frozen claws tearing at our flesh. Live or die on this day? Live. We set our faces and got to the task. Stoic numbness. Hours pass, each one seemingly instant and an eternity simultaneously. Each man alone in his own icy world and yet working together as one, a team. Steely expressions stare down the wind, taunting it, as if it could be conquered. Then as abruptly as they began, the savage winds eased and the sun shone forth in all its glory, warming both heart and mind, urging us to finish, to survive. We conjured the willpower to push on, to complete, eventually we overcame. We won the day.

Marc (Millsy)

Visiting the neighbours: Zhongshan, Bharati and Progress stations

Last week saw an opportunity for a team from Davis to visit our neighbours in the Larsemann Hills, located about 100 km west of Davis. Kirsten (station leader), Ralph (doctor), Sharon (operations coordinator), Chris (senior field training officer) and myself departed Davis in the morning with the first stop at the Chinese station, Zhongshan.

After being welcomed by the station leader and some light refreshments we were given a very informative tour of their station and an overview of the science they are conducting. Ralph was especially interested in viewing the medical facility and was very impressed by the level of medical equipment on hand. After the tour we were hosted at a traditional Chinese tea ceremony where we sampled a very special red tea and discussed the strong bond between Chinese and Australian research expeditions.

Next stop was Bharati station which is home to the Indian program. Bharati is a very modern station and interestingly is all contained within one building — quite different to the Australian station model of having everything segregated into separate buildings. The Indians were fantastic hosts and again gave us an in depth tour of their base. A great lunch was provided which was followed by a presentation of gifts.

After Bharati we flew to the Russian station, Progress. The Russians were incredibly hospitable, providing some tasty snacks and of course a few traditional Russian toasts were made by those who didn’t have to fly the helicopter home. The Russians have a number of interesting tracked traverse vehicles that are used to drive to and from Vostok station, several thousand kilometres inland and the coldest place on earth.

The final stop on the trip was a quick drop into Law Base, a small Australian outpost which is currently unoccupied.

It was incredibly interesting to see three different nations’ bases in one day and it really felt like we were visiting their respective countries as each base had a distinct feel to it.

A big thank you must be extended to the Chinese, Indian and Russian station leaders and expeditioners for so generously hosting us.

Dave L (senior helicopter pilot)

A visit to the neighbours was a key goal for the season. It was a chance for the station leaders, doctors and logistic personnel to meet one another face to face. We are in a remote location where we may need to turn to each other for help in a time of need or crisis. There is a strong sense of international community down on the ice. And with everyone coming to the end of their summer season, thinking about the long winter approaching, it is important to know we are all in it together and only a phone call away.


Searching for snow petrels

The seabird team of Anna and Phoebe have been spending lots of time in the Vestfold Hills lately, closely examining boulders, rocky slopes and slabs and everything in between. No, we’re not trying to put our geologist colleagues out of a job. We are looking for a couple of elusive seabirds — the snow petrel and Wilson’s storm petrel — which nest in crevices and rock cavities during the summer.

We are searching a series of 50 m by 50 m plots across the landscape to help understand what sort of habitat the species prefer, and at what density they occur. This will help improve our estimate of the size of the Vestfold Hills population — currently estimated at between 4 and 200 000 individuals*. In each plot we investigate every crack and crevice, and under each boulder for signs of occupation or breeding. The Wilson’s storm petrels leave very few clues and can squeeze into tiny spaces, so they are extremely difficult to find. Often only their chattering from deep within their crevice tells us they are there. The snow petrels are larger and messier, often leaving trails of white faeces that draw us in to their hiding spots like beacons. The entrances to snow petrel cavities are also often stained with oil, which they’ve spat from inside their nooks as a deterrent to predatory skuas (or perhaps nosy neighbours?). There’s always a moment of excitement when you spot those telltale poo and spit signs. They might not be welcome things in normal life, but for a seabird scientist, they’re a sure indication that something lives here!

* May not reflect actual scientific estimates.


Geophysics at Carey Nunatak

Our project aims to better understand the interaction between solid Earth and the ice sheet of East Antarctica. We want to know how changes in the ice mass can affect global sea level, but to achieve that, we need to collect more data. One of the more challenging locations for our data acquisition is a tiny rocky outcrop (nunatak), in Princess Elizabeth Land. Last year, the nunatak was named after one of Australia’s most famous geologists, professor Samuel Warren Carey.

The helicopter flight from Davis station to Carey Nunatak is indeed very beautiful with the white ice to the south, the blue ocean in the north. The view caused some problems when we tried to make time go a bit faster by playing ‘I spy with my little eye’ with the other helicopter over radio. We came up with ‘horizon’, ‘Ingrid Christiansen Land’, ‘Antarctic Circumpolar Current’, ‘chord’ (referring to a tiny chord in front of the windscreen), but then there wasn’t really much else to refer to. Snow, sun, sea or sky would have been too obvious and ‘cows’ wouldn’t have been all that true. Sometimes you just have to except that it’s really big, monotonous and very far to go. To look down at the crevasses cutting through the ice under the drifting snow is a reminder that it’s also really dangerous land.

Geophysicists like myself go out with hammer drills, bolting GPS receivers to strategically located outcrops. This lets us measure how the continents are slowly but steadily sailing around the planet on an ocean of glutinous melted mantle, rebounding from the melting ice load, or submerging under the pressure of growing ice sheets or volcanoes. We also know that the continental plates are rather bad navigators. Sometimes they rock as earthquakes strike their hull, sometimes they change course, slide and scratch along each other, fall apart or deform. Sometimes they even sink, if the mantel keel gets too heavy.

To be able to understand the history of the Earth, we need observations, and we can’t get the observations from UTAS’ Sandy Bay campus in Hobart and unfortunately not even from the panoramic windows in Nina’s Bar at Davis station. This is why the operations coordinator, meteorologists, radio operators, aviation ground support, pilots, mechanics, field guides, Marcello and myself, struggled the whole Sunday to get to Carey Nunatak with fuel drums, 320 kg of equipment and packages of salty biscuits that eventually ended up as crumbs in the backseat of the helicopter.

At Carey Nunatak we deployed a GPS receiver with a solar panel to provide reliable power for years. We also installed a seismometer to measure vibrations and noise from distant earthquakes and collected two backpacks full of rock samples.

The main challenge for deep field work is the environmental protection. I think I saw at least six different kinds of lichens and mosses on the nunatak. Could any of these be endemic to the site? Any contamination from other outcrops could be harmful for these organisms. I washed my crowbar in ethanol and we tried our best to step carefully on the rocks not to harm these sensitive fellas. I get a strong connection to the inhabitants I meet at these remote locations. They were maybe there already when Ui-te-Rangiora or Captain Cook first approached the Antarctic continent. If I remove a rock and find a patch of lichens hiding from the wind and the UV-light, I’ll carefully put the rock back in place. Sorry to disturb, stay safe!

We are not the first people to visit the outcrop. Most sites we went to during the field season have been visited previously by Soviet and Russian scientists. We found triangulation markers, notes in cairns and Antarctic heritage rubbish. Hopefully our work will add important knowledge to the accumulated international understanding of the Antarctica. It’s of global concern.

Flying home with hours still to go, Toby (the pilot) interrupted the small talk in the chopper and asked with an unusual sincerity; ‘Why do we need to go so far to do your science?’

Funny, I was actually asking myself the same question. Because that lichen draped and weathered rock is our only peek into the crust for hundreds of kilometres. It’s our first glimpse into a secret land, hiding under a veil of ice.

The season is approaching the end. It has been a great time, both at Casey and Davis, and it will be sad to leave Antarctica. Sorry to disturb, stay safe!


Met team out in the hills

The meteorological (met) team have been busy supporting the aviation program at Davis this summer, with plenty of long days and lots of evening flying. It’s great to see science projects getting out and achieving their goals. We’re primarily here at Davis to work (and we work very hard — don’t listen to what those tradies say!), but with the Vestfold Hills at our doorstep, we’re also here to walk. Time is running out before the arrival of V3, and those of us in the met team heading back on the ship are making the most of days off to get out into the field and see a bit of Antarctica while we still can.

Between the five of us we have walked all through the station’s recreation limits, and have lately been getting out to some of the lovely field huts around Davis — in particular Watts and Brookes Huts.

Last weekend, I was lucky enough to book a spot on a red taxi heading to Trajer Hut to pick up a work crew. I was joined by Kim and Arvid and we spent the weekend exploring some of the less accessible areas of the Vestfolds. Day 1 saw us enjoying the sights around Trajer, then navigating our way south to Boulder Hill. The maps don’t really capture just how much more difficult it is to walk north to south in the Vestfolds, compared to east to west, but it was very obvious on the ground that first day!

We were all a bit weary as we set up our bivvies in lovely still conditions next to a stream with a little waterfall flowing into the lake at the base of Boulder Hill. Then the katabatic kicked in and got us out of bed early the next day as the rattle of our ‘chip packets’ (bivvy bags) became unbearable. Once we got going though we enjoyed a stunning walk through the hills, over rock and snow and past many, many beautiful lakes on our way to Crooked Lake apple hut. Here we were met with the challenge of a river crossing. The water has been steadily rising over the last few weeks as we reach peak melt at this time of summer.

We eventually picked our way across, practicing our balancing skills with barely a wet foot between us. We enjoyed lunch at the apple with a view of the lake. We then made our way through more spectacular scenery to finish at Watts hut for the evening. Watts is a lovely hut, with resident cranky skuas and a visiting Weddell seal. Lotter and his motley crew arrived for a weekend of birthday celebrations and we chatted into the night, while Arvid had a snooze in the corner. The next morning, all that was left to do was return to Davis and all the comforts it has to offer. We are lucky to be spending time in such a special part of the world.