Return to the Home of the Blizzard
In January 1910, the great scientist and explorer Douglas Mawson wrote in his diary ‘Arrival in London. Interview with Captain Scott. He is surprised I am not just coming to enlist with him. I ask him has he thought of the coast W. of C. Adare. He said that he had not.’
As an Antarctic veteran only 27 years of age, Mawson was dubious of the scientific value of reaching the Pole. Turning the British leader Scott down, Mawson was determined to explore the region south of Australia. There were so many questions, so little data. Most atlases had the bottom third of the Southern Hemisphere as a blank, white space, with ‘Unexplored’ stamped all over it. But the explorers, scientists and cartographers of the early twentieth century did not battle sub-zero temperatures and ice-scarred landscapes just to conquer land, bag a pole or grow an impressive beard. These expeditionary teams—even those intent on scoring a geographical first—went south to scientifically explore a new continent.
Although often overlooked in the popular press, Mawson is one of the great heroes of Antarctic science. Raising an equivalent of $25 million from public and private benefactors, Mawson led what was then the largest, most multidisciplinary team to head south. The Australasian expedition was of a scale never previously attempted: three bases, thirty-one land-based members, seven major sledging journeys and a full oceanographic program. Mawson’s venture gave the world its first complete scientific snapshot of a new continent. Setting up his main base at Cape Denison – which they soon discovered to be the windiest place in the world – his men explored a vast stretch of eastern Antarctica; discovered new bays, mountains and glaciers; and linked up areas that had previously been discovered only in isolation. The resulting 89 scientific volumes described Antarctica’s violent and extreme weather, its flourishing plant and animal life, the ocean’s fickleness. Unfortunately the price was high. On the ice, a sudden turn of events led to tragedy, the death of two men, allegations of cannibalism and with the return of winter sea ice, an extended stay in Antarctica. If you’d like to learn more of Mawson’s remarkable tale of survival, visit the following article at
The East Antarctic remains to this day one of the last great wildernesses on our planet. Mawson and his men worked in a region we now recognize as one of the key locations for understanding how our planet works. Thanks to the efforts of the original Australasian Antarctic Expedition we now know the vast continental ice sheet acts as a thermostat for the regulation of our planet’s temperature, while the surrounding South Ocean plays a key role in shuffling heat around the globe. The problem is this that all seems to be changing.
In 2010, an iceberg the size of Rhode Island, known as B09B, dramatically knocked a 60 mile long tongue of ice off the Mertz Glacier into the Southern Ocean, setting off a cascade of change across the region, including locking Cape Denison up behind a vast expense of sea ice. Unfortunately, no government Antarctic program was planning to visit the area to make sense of what was happening. What impact has there been on ocean circulation? What effect was this having on the climate and ice sheet? How is local wildlife responding? Thanks to the hard work undertaken a century ago, we have a crucial baseline against which we can compare observations today.
|Ice coring at Cape Denison|
To make the measurements so desperately needed today, co-leader and friend and I resolved to head south. , we used a funding model pioneered by Mawson and his contemporaries. We received support from private corporations; we sold berths on the vessel for volunteers to join the science team; and we advertised for PhD students to help support the teams in the field. After two years of preparation we had a large, ice-breaker– the MV Akademik Shokalskiy – and a brilliant team. With a letter of support from the then Australian Prime Minister, the Honourable Julia Gillard, .
We set out south in late November 2013 and first worked our way across the wildlife havens of the sub-Antarctic islands. The research programme started on our departure and resulted in many firsts for the region. Although free of ice today, the islands preserve a remarkable record of past glacial activity. Glaciological reconstructions on the land and at sea are helping us understand how our planet moved out of the last ice age. Alongside these efforts, analysis of the wildlife, trees and peat bogs are providing an invaluable record of climate change and its impact across this vast region. Fighting our way across the ‘Roaring Forties’ and ‘Furious Fifties’ wind belt of the Southern Ocean, we deployed ocean drifters and automated probes to to investigate one of the planet’s great ocean boundaries: the Antarctic Convergence, the division between the warm subtropical waters and the frigid cold polar waters. Many of these devices are continuing to collect data and will do so for the next 3-5 years, beaming their findings back home.
|Locals on the sea ice: Adelie penguins|
With 24-hour daylight the norm, and after five hours of heart-stopping travel through an iceberg graveyard, . Passing convoys of penguins along the way, we broadcast our progress in real time and delivered two science teams and conservators from the . Oceanographic, biological and glaciological work on and around Cape Denison is providing invaluable insights into past, present and future changes in the region. Our work largely completed, we set out for home but became trapped by a major outbreak of sea ice, remobilised from along the Antarctic coast. Sweeping into our path from the north and east, the sea ice trapped us on the Shokalskiy for ten days.
, the Australasian Antarctic Expedition 2013-2014 aimed to excite the public about science, to show how science works and why it matters. We used the lessons from a hundred years ago and took the latest satellite technology to broadcast science and our findings – and our predicament – to the world. During the six weeks of the expedition, we hosted numerous Google+ Hangouts on Air allowing us to broadcast live footage and share the Antarctic with people at home in real time. (. Our website, , received more than 60,000 visits, driving traffic to the science reports, films and sound recordings we posted on our social media sites (, , , , and ).
Next Thursday evening I'll be talking at the Royal Institution in London about the scientific results of the Australasian Antarctic Expedition 2013-2014 and the importance of engaging the public in how science works and why it matters (7 pm, 17 July). As the great Carl Sagan once wrote, ‘If we teach only the findings and products of science – no matter how useful and inspiring they may be – without communicating its critical method, how can the average person possibly distinguish science from pseudoscience?’
Thirty years on, Carl Sagan’s words remain frighteningly relevant.