It is a fascinating experience going through the same decision making process as the expedition of 100 years ago. What Mawson’s captain Davis achieved with so little is extraordinary. Using just observations from their vessel the Aurora, the original AAE explored thousands of kilometres of ocean, much of it by working their way through the pack, probing for gaps and hoping they did not close up behind them. It takes incredible courage to do this. One mistake and the ship could be trapped in the ice – with no one in the outside world really knowing where they were. It’s hard to imagine this scenario today. We have all the advantages of modern technology. Daily satellite reports provide images of what lies ahead, the Australian Antarctic Division are kindly sending us daily weather reports for the region from Casey station (thanks Jane!) our location is publicly available, and if we get into serious trouble we can pick up the phone for help (albeit a last resort). That’s not to say we can be complacent. Even today, it is all too clear this is an unforgiving environment and conditions can change very quickly.
Planning our approach
Yesterday, the sea ice imagery suggested the small gap in sea ice that might be our route into Commonwealth Bay was closing up. But with a new day comes new prospects. The wind has shifted to the west and with it, a new opening has been created; it is amazing how quickly the ice scape can change. And because we had a largely cloudless day, the sea ice report for Commonwealth Bay was produced, providing a valuable update on where the edge of the fast ice lies. We had intended to travel down to the Mertz glacier and moor up on the eastern side of the ice for an approach on Mawson’s Hut. Unfortunately, the imagery shows that this area is badly broken up, reducing the chances of mooring up against a clean, stable ice face. Instead we have now set a new course to the west of iceberg B09B and hope to use this as our base of operations for the science program on the fast ice and our advance on Mawson’s Huts.
As I write, the sea ice is significantly younger (perhaps as little as 6 weeks old) and the Shokalskiy is making great progress. It’s almost like cutting through butter, with none of the grinding and crushing that we have enjoyed so much over the last couple of days. Chris and Greg have just given the logistics briefing to the rest of the science team and it looks very good. Much will depend on what we find when we arrive but we are as prepared as we can be. With any luck we should be alongside the sea ice tomorrrow!
Cape Denison holds a special place in the history of Antarctic exploration. A small outcrop of rocks on the remote East Antarctic coastline, Cape Denison is forever associated with one of the most spectacular and often forgotten tales of survival. A century ago it was the main base of operations for one of the great explorers of the south: the Australian scientist Sir Douglas Mawson. Privately funded, three bases and one research ship supported a science team that explored a region the size of the United States between 1911 and 1914. Mawson’s Australasian Antarctic Expedition, however, suffered terribly during their time at Cape Denison: a sudden turn of events led to tragedy on the ice, the death of two men, allegations of cannibalism and with the return of winter sea ice, an extended stay in Antarctica. But when they first came upon Cape Denison, Mawson was ecstatic. Greeted by squawking penguins: ‘We were soon inside a beautiful, miniature harbour completely land-locked. The sun sh…
There’s an old sailor’s expression: “Below 40 degrees south there is no law, below 50 degrees south there is no God.” Since the sixteenth century, sailors have spoken in awe of the violent westerly winds and seas they experienced fighting their way across the Southern Ocean. With few landmasses to slow them down, the winds found across 40 degrees latitude often reach speeds of twenty-five knots—about 40 percent stronger than their northern hemisphere counterparts—earning them the title the “roaring forties.” As shipping pushed farther south, explorers realized that these winds form part of a vast storm belt that includes the “furious fifties” and “screaming sixties,” names more reminiscent of terrible rock bands than a major part of our planet’s circulation system. The early hunters and traders didn’t understand it at the time, but these winds are created by a procession of low-pressure systems carried east by the jet stream, a river of cold air hurtling and twisting round the Antarct…
Commonwealth Bay in the
East Antarctic will be forever associated with Sir Douglas Mawson’s pioneering
scientific venture a century ago: the Australasian Antarctic Expedition. Mawson’s
team had only intended to spend one year south, but it was not to be. A sudden turn of events led to tragedy on the ice, the deaths of two men, allegations of cannibalism and, with the return of winter sea ice, an extended stay in Antarctica. While the efforts of Mawson and his men laid the foundations for modern
Antarctic science, the region has continued to experience dramatic change. And
it doesn’t get any more dramatic than the arrival of iceberg B09B in 2011. The
word ‘berg’ doesn’t really do it justice though – B09B is a monster. Weighing
in at an estimated 500 billion tonnes, this block of ice is 97 miles long and over
20 kilometres wide. There’s enough freshwater in B09B to provide all of New
York’s drinking needs for 300 years. And it started out even larger. In 1987,
an iceberg the size of Bal…