On board the wonderful Australian icebreaker Aurora australis
After the first decent night’s sleep in a fortnight, the team are starting to familarise themselves with their new home, on board the Australian icebreaker Aurora australis, a remarkable red giant that stands proud in the heavy pack ice. It has been an intense last 24 hours. Yesterday we woke to brilliant sunshine and calm on the Akademik Shokalskiy with no immediate news of evacuation. Indeed, we even had the Inaugural Mertz Writer’s Festival on the ice, in anticipation of another day locked in. But by 1800, we were in evacuation mode. The Russian crew opted to remain with their vessel until either conditions improve or they are broken out by another vessel capable of reaching them. Captain Igor and his crew were completely unflappable and provided a wonderfully calming influence for everyone else. By midnight we were all safely on board the Aurora thanks to some impressive helicopter sorties by the Chinese from their icebreaker Xue Long (Snow Dragon); round trips between the Shokalskiy and the Aurora were completed in just 25 minutes. Team members, luggage, science gear and samples from the expedition were transported with good grace, humour and professionalism, whilst also bringing food supplies back for the Russians (we only had five day’s supply left). Everyone spoke admiringly of how the operation went during and after the evacuation. The Xue Long is now itself working in heavy ice but we hope the Chinese team will also get out soon.
On the Aurora
The AAE team have been fantastic. Everyone held together to the end, supporting one another and keeping good humour under very trying conditions. The following can only be a short summary of an incredible team effort. Chris and Greg worked all hours sorting logistics and co-ordinating with the Bridge; the ship’s manager Nikki did not seem to sleep, maintaining a daily program of activities for everyone; Brad and Nikki – the ships cooks – served amazing meals on a decreasing amount of supplies; the two Bens helped keep everyone busy with activities while doing essential work around the ship; and Colin and Kerry Lee helped with Chinese translation on the Bridge. Our impressive media team in Alok, Lawrence and Andrew from The Guardian and BBC helped keep our families and friends (and the world) assured we were well while also reporting on the science; not always an easy task given the conditions! Everyone else on the AAE looked after one another, providing leadership when needed, continuing the science work when possible, giving talks, providing lessons in all manner of skills, and being available for a quiet chat at almost any hour. We were very fortunate to have such a remarkable group of people on the AAE.
On board the wonderful Aurora, we were greeted by friendly voices and faces of friends and colleagues. Everyone is well and in good humour – albeit a little relieved. The helicopter voyage over some 14 nautical miles of jagged, broken sea ice just reaffirmed to the team how massive the ice breakout must have been that trapped us. I met the brilliant Captain (‘Master’) Murray Doyle of the Aurora and personally thanked him for the tremendous effort he and his team undertook to extricate us. The mission with the Chinese went ahead seamlessly and is a testament to the professionalism of all those involved. Murray reiterated that vessels always look out for one another in the Antarctic; ‘It’s part of the programme of people working down here. We have to rely on each other if something goes wrong. You’re too far away from anything else, it’s only the people here you can really rely on’. I was greatly relieved to hear from Murray that the disruption to the vessel schedule is likely to be limited. We are now heading west to the Australian base Casey, finish the resupply there and then return to Hobart. If all goes to plan, the Aurora will depart Tasmania for its fourth voyage of the season on schedule.
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…
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…
At the end of the last ice age (11,000 to 18,000 years ago), the world suddenly lost some of the most remarkable creatures that ever roamed our planet. Patagonia in southern South America was particularly rich in creatures that could only be labelled bizarre today: elephant-sized sloths, giant jaguar, powerful sabre-toothed cats and an enormous one-tonne short-faced bear (the largest ever land-based mammalian carnivore). What caused their demise is one of the big geological whodunnits.
Last year you may remember we had a research paper published in Science that looked at megafaunal extinction in North America and Eurasia. Whilst warming looked like it was a driver of the extinctions in the Northern Hemisphere, there was a tantalising hint that humans had also played a role. But disentangling the effects of both was challenging. To test their roles we have extended our work to Patagonia and the results are now published in the The American Association for the Advancement of Science j…