Memoir

Leading down south

Negotiating the ‘A-­factor’

IT DAWNED ON me at high altitude above the polar icecap. My ears popped in the ageing plane, tubes of frosty oxygen up my nose, as I hung suspended in a bowl of blue over an endless expanse of Antarctic white. The logistical challenges ahead were enormous: we were embarking on one of the most ambitious inspection programs of Antarctica undertaken by Australia in the past sixty years.

For more than a month in early 2020, our team of four was tasked with criss-crossing over 10,000 kilometres of East Antarctica and the Ross Sea region in a DC-­3 airframe almost seventy years old that had been modernised into a Basler BT-­67 turboprop. Our mission was to visit and officially inspect six stations operated by the Republic of Korea, Germany, China, Russia and Belarus – and to ‘pop in’ to another six stations operated by other nations.

These inspections are part of Australia’s commitments under the Antarctic Treaty: nations operating in the frozen continent undertake official visits to other countries’ stations to conduct formal inspection activities. This ensures transparency and compliance with the purpose of the treaty, which is to protect Antarctica as ‘a natural reserve devoted to peace and science’.

If doing this diplomatic dance was one challenge on my mind, the other was the even less predictable ‘A-­factor’ – not knowing what the remote, extreme and hostile Antarctic environment can throw at you. This is, after all, a place where a picture-­perfect blue-­sky day can change in a matter of minutes to a life-threatening white-­out blizzard, with winds over 200 km/h and temperatures plummeting to thirty below zero. Such volatile conditions mean that planning to fly between two far-­flung outposts rarely happens the first time, given the difficulty of lining up good-­weather windows for flying. All Antarctic nations operate in this unpredictable and dynamic environment; the ‘A-­factor’ solidifies the imperative to collaborate closely in order to ensure survival in such a hostile place.

As I gazed over the Antarctic ice cap, its whiteness fissured with occasional deep blue crevasses, I was thankful for the currently peaceful conditions I could see through the BT-­67 Basler’s small window.

These twin-­propeller aircraft were popular in the 1930s and during World War II – in fact, this very airframe we were on had flown as a pathfinder on D-­Day. The configuration of the Baslers make them highly suitable for extreme Antarctic operating conditions: they have the reliability, ruggedness, payload and range that enable transfer of people and cargo over long distances between stations – and they can land on often bumpy ice ski-­landing areas.

Each summer, Australia leases a Basler from a Canadian company. It is flown 16,000 kilometres south from its Arctic work in the northern hemisphere, hopping through North and South America and finally across the South Pole to reach Australia’s three stations in East Antarctica for the austral summer.

Despite their age, the Baslers are a very sturdy and reliable aircraft. But they’re not pressurised, which means that when flying at very high altitudes over the Antarctic plateau, oxygen is needed. For this, the aircraft have a cannula system, much like in a hospital: the ice-­cold oxygen is piped up through little tubes into your nose for up to six hours at a time.

Our destination on this crisply clear Antarctic summer’s day was the Italian Mario Zucchelli Station on the edge of the Ross Sea. Coming in to land on the ice runway I could see a scattering of Lego-­like blue and orange buildings huddled on the rare ice-­free rocky coastline. The surrounding icy hillsides ascended steeply to the plateau behind.

We were using the Italian station as a jumping-­off point to inspect some of the nearby stations – the German Gondwana Station and, for the first time, the Korean Jang Bogo Station, as well as China’s temporary station on the site of the proposed new Chinese station planned for Inexpressible Island in Terra Nova Bay. This is a truly remarkable part of Antarctica; from here, Scott stepped off on his ill-­fated expedition to the South Pole in January 1911.

 

WHEN INSPECTIONS ARE undertaken, the protocol is that you don’t let people know you’re coming until you’re reasonably close to arriving: the idea is that any visiting nations see normal day-­to-­day activities on a station, rather than a rehearsed version of reality.

At each station we check on three key things. We look at the scientific research – and we really dig into these scientific programs, asking about the research being undertaken, talking to scientists, visiting their laboratories and inspecting the outcomes of any studies underway.

We also examine whether activities are being undertaken with a focus on environmental sustainability and whether they comply with the rules and guidelines of the Antarctic Treaty’s environmental protocol. There’s a checklist of a whole range of things – most of them quite mundane and not particularly attractive, such as sewerage systems, water treatment plants, rubbish disposal, fuel storage and management, and the management of toxic chemicals, oils and gases.

The third element of a treaty inspection is about peaceful use. We look to ensure that stations are being operated for peaceful purposes. Some nations use military logistical support to keep their stations running, which is in accordance with the treaty – it’s not uncommon to see military aircraft in Antarctica. Australia uses C-­17As from the Royal Australian Air Force to provide support to our stations. It’s about ensuring that any use of such logistics is actually peaceful.

Every station is different and every station strongly reflects its national culture – probably both the good and the bad, I suspect, with huge diversity across the board.

On the 2020 inspection tour, as expected, the ‘A-­factor’ ended up dominating our plans. We spent two weeks at Mario Zucchelli Station, waiting for the right weather window in which to make our next hop to the Australian stations, several thousand kilometres to the east. But I honestly can’t think of a better place to wait for good weather: it was like being marooned in a small Italian village. The social focus of the whole station was one small room with an ice-­cream machine and a huge espresso machine, as well as cupboards full of cheese and chocolate. The station team were consummate professionals, absolutely charming people and very welcoming.

Often on these visits, there is no common language – which can make things interesting. At some of the stations we inspected, the station team didn’t speak English and we didn’t speak their language. So there was this strange dialogue using Google Translate that often didn’t quite capture what we wanted but was enough to get the message across. The great strength of the Antarctic is that people from such different backgrounds and cultures are working together on the ice to achieve shared objectives: that’s incredibly inspiring to see in action.

When the weather cleared, we waved goodbye to our wonderful Italian hosts and were flown by the Canadian aircrew up and over the shoulder of the Antarctic plateau, descending to another small coastal rocky outcrop to land in a small patch of Australian culture at Casey Station.

Over the following two weeks we transited through Australia’s three stations – Casey, Davis and Mawson – to visit neighbouring stations nearby: Russia’s Progress Station, China’s Zhongshan Station, India’s Bharati Station and Belarus’s Mountain Evening Station.

Reciting a list like that makes the trip sound much easier than the logistical reality: aircraft landings had to be carefully co-­ordinated with other countries while also taking note of weather observations and forecasts. As with Australia’s own incredible aviation teams, other stations have ski ways or ice runways that have to be prepared beforehand and maintained to enable smooth arrivals.

Conditions are always challenging: China’s seasonal Taishan Station, for example, is on the ice cap 2,600 metres above sea level and around 520 kilometres inland. Our inspection there – the first ever conducted of that station – took place in temperatures of minus-30 degrees with forty-­knot winds.

In the last six decades, Australia has conducted ten such inspection programs in Antarctica in support of the Antarctic Treaty and its Protocol on Environmental Protection. And what we found this time was broad compliance with the treaty requirements, including scientific research, environmental protection and non-militarisation. Wherever we went, we delved deep: we took a lot of photographs and asked a million questions, none of which were left unanswered. In fact, if they couldn’t be answered on the spot – if, for instance, they were too technical – we received follow-­up documentation shortly afterwards. There were no limits to where we went or what we did – and nothing we saw indicated a breach of the treaty.

That’s at the highest level.

At the lower levels, we did find several areas in which we could provide advice to nations on aspects of station management we felt they could improve, particularly in the areas of environmental management. Ensuring humans have a minimal impact on the fragile Antarctic environment is a huge challenge faced by us all. There is also work to do in terms of remediating contaminated sites – but, fortunately, Australia has very strong expertise in cold-­climate remediation. This is an area where we are actively assisting other Antarctic nations, sharing some of our techniques and technology to effectively manage human impact.

This spirit of co-­operation and collegiality is the basis of all activity in Antarctica through the Antarctic Treaty System.

 

AUSTRALIA WAS ONE of twelve original signatories to the Antarctic Treaty in 1959 – along with Argentina, Belgium, Chile, France, Japan, New Zealand, Norway, South Africa, the United Kingdom, the United States and the-­then USSR, seven of whom had previously made territorial claims. Today, the Australian Antarctic Territory covers nearly 5.9 million square kilometres or about 42 per cent of the continent. And while the treaty inspection program in 2020 demonstrated Australia’s ability to reach all areas of our Antarctic territory, our permanent presence is based on the coast.

Australia operates four research stations – Casey, Davis and Mawson in East Antarctica, and Macquarie Island in the subantarctic region. In winter, a total of around eighty people live on the four Australian stations, which expands to a summer population of around 300 at any one time. We’ve had a permanent presence in Antarctica at Mawson Station since 1954 – the longest continuously operating station south of the Antarctic Circle. If Australia is to maintain a strong leadership role in Antarctica and the treaty system, we have to commit to a range of activities in the region. We need to maintain and modernise stations to undertake meaningful research. We need a capable logistics network that keeps our people safe and stations operating. We also need to commit to the elements of the treaty, such as inspections, that are fundamental to maintaining the treaty system. Our key mission is to ensure that Antarctica remains valued, protected and understood.

With unprecedented funding of more than $804 million committed for the coming decade – in addition to $2.8 billion announced in 2016 – Australia is in a remarkable window of opportunity. Our new icebreaker RSV Nuyina has just come into service to become the backbone of our Antarctic and Southern Ocean research for the next thirty years, resupplying stations and undertaking extended scientific voyages to areas we have never explored before. New long-­range medium-­lift helicopters carried by RSV Nuyina will also be able to access further inland, extending our reach into Antarctica logistically and scientifically. With the use of fuel depots, these helicopters will be capable of flying between our stations in Antarctica. New research will improve our understanding of Antarctica and the Southern Ocean’s role in the global climate system by funding a major ice-sheet science program supported by cutting-­edge technologies, and we are setting up a new overland traverse capability, or tractor train, to reach deep into the interior of the continent to set up an inland station and search for the world’s oldest ice.

At the same time, unmanned aerial vehicles will be able to map and explore remote and fragile regions of East Antarctica. These agile technologies will provide greater flexibility to do remote science and critical mapping from either ships or stations and improve safety by helping with navigation, while pioneering research into environmental management will include a Cleaner Antarctica Strategy for removing legacy waste from old and existing stations.

Australia leads the world in researching Antarctic krill, the keystone species of the Southern Ocean, and a new state-­of-­the-­art aquarium for krill research will be built in Hobart in partnership with the University of Tasmania. AAD’s existing krill research aquarium was built as a world-­first prototype, and the new one will have five times the capacity, providing unprecedented abilities to study feeding, growth, longevity and reproduction at all stages of the krill life cycle simultaneously.

Tasmania is already home to a vibrant and innovative Antarctic sector, building and designing sleds, tractors and cutting-­edge science instruments, providing food and supplies to Antarctic vessels, and providing specialist advice on rural and remote medicine. An expanded program of operations in Antarctica will reinforce Hobart’s position as the premier gateway to East Antarctica. Many countries’ Antarctic programs use Hobart as an Antarctic gateway – primarily France but also Italy, China, Japan and the US – and there is potential for increased activity and engagement. RSV Nuyina will provide a unique platform for multinational researchers to collaborate on Southern Ocean studies. The vessel has unparalleled ice-­breaking capability to cut through the sea ice that encircles the continent through much of the year and do research previously not possible during the depths of winter.

When I first travelled to the Antarctic in 1979, as a fresh-­faced young twenty-year-­old army lieutenant driving amphibious vehicles, we thrived on the challenge of working in such a remote, hostile and breathtaking environment. Tradies keep the stations running and support the scientists in the field to undertake research on the penguins, seals and ice. While more than four decades have passed since my first trip south, this collegial sense of purpose and camaraderie remains today. But there’s been one key change across all national Antarctic programs – a shift to a more diverse workforce.

Currently about a quarter of all expeditioners who head south with the Australian Antarctic Program are women or from diverse backgrounds. This helps achieve a better balance of personnel on station and means our expeditions more closely reflect the composition of Australian society today. We are moving away from the heroic era of exploration, where Antarctica was the domain of white men conquering the ‘last frontier’. While we still have some way to go, we are actively recruiting for more inclusive and diverse teams in the future. We now have women in key roles across all areas of our program, from station leaders to scientists, electricians and mechanics. In our remote field camps, we have exceptional female field leaders – managing small teams undertaking complex scientific research projects, logistics and, of course, the challenges of the unpredictable ‘A-factor’.

 

WHEN THE AUSTRALIAN inspection team finally boarded the Airbus A319 for the return flight back to Hobart, I was relieved we had managed to achieve all our aims – despite the ‘A-­factor’. We had inspected half a dozen stations and safely navigated the most geographically extensive inspection program Australia had ever undertaken.

Everything that happens in Antarctica – its ice, its ocean, its atmosphere – influences the rest of the planet. Our scientists have used a 2,000-­year ice-­core record of snowfall in East Antarctica to illustrate that reduced rainfall and drought in south-­west Western Australia since the 1970s is likely due to carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gas emissions from human activity. The study indicates that the rainfall reduction is unlikely to be due to natural variation alone, suggesting drier conditions could become the ‘new normal’ as emissions rise. This has implications for the management of residential water supplies and industrial and agricultural production in the south-­west region.

I marvel that the human operation in the Antarctic is built on the spirit of co-operation and the purpose of peaceful scientific research that form the basis of the Antarctic Treaty System – science that can not only benefit the preservation of the Antarctic but is also of global relevance to everyone’s future. The icy continent has many secrets yet to be discovered, if those working in the region are able to navigate the challenges of the ‘A-factor’.

No matter which country they hailed from, the people I met on this expedition all – without exception – love Antarctica. They understand what they’re doing there and why they’re doing it. Such focused passion is a big part of what makes the frozen continent, in all its fierce and spectacular forms, such an extraordinary place.

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