The Aurora Australis on its way through the Antarctic sea ice.
The Aurora Australis on its way through the Antarctic sea ice.

By Bianca

By the time you read this post I will be already in Hobart to start my days early at 8.30am with some special training. Training to prepare us for life in one of the roughest places on Earth – Antarctica.

Despite spring slowly coming upon us, temperature will be well below freezing and weather conditions can change quickly from a blue sky to wipe-out conditions. All that and more is what we will be trained for at the Australian Antarctic Division in Kingston, Tasmania.

I don’t know the exact training plan just yet, but I know the training includes issues such as workplace health and safety, working hours and fatigue management under 24 hours-daylight conditions, medical briefing, field hazards and environmental training.

After the training we have a couple of days to get ourselves ready and fully prepared to enter Australia’s big icebreaker, the Aurora Australis for our fortnight-long journey through the Southern Ocean and Antarctica’s sea-ice.

September and October are usually the months where the sea-ice reaches its maximum volume and breaking through the ice will be an annually returning challenge for the Aurora.

An overview of the Australian stations and our fieldwork site, Richardson Lake, approximately 500km away from Mawson station.
An overview of the Australian stations and our fieldwork site, Richardson Lake, approximately 500km away from Mawson station.

The Aurora Australis will bring us to Davis station, Australia’s most southerly Australian Antarctic station.

On the next day we are meant to board a Twin Otter with all our equipment and fly to Mawson, Australia’s oldest continental station in Antarctica.

In Mawson we will spend most of our time preparing ourselves, and our equipment, for a week in the field. We will start off with some more training in the first week, including survival and field travel training. The following weeks will be our travel window, as the fieldwork strongly depends on weather conditions. Should the weather turn out to be bad the entire time, we won’t be able to do anything but remain at the station. In that case we most likely will use the available gym, climbing wall, sauna & spa, cinema or library to entertain ourselves. However, hoping the weather will be just fine we will fly out to Richardson Lake in Enderby Land, where we will do approximately a week of camping.

B3
Mawson station. The Red Shed is the main accommodation building and houses single-room bedrooms, lounge, kitchen, dining room and surgery. It also provides entertainment areas such as a home theatre, library or an indoor climbing wall.
Areal view of Richardson Lake. The black line indicates the location of the 2007 installed GPS station.
Areal view of Richardson Lake. The black line indicates the location of the 2007 installed GPS station.

The first goal is to replace the Richardson Lake GPS Station that was installed in January 2007; the second goal is to install a second GPS station. The second site is planned to be southeast of Richardson Lake and will be determined with regard to aircraft landing possibilities, accessibility from landing area to site and the suitability of the site for the installation of the GPS Station. Hoping to be successful in every way we will happily fly back to Mawson, from there to Davis and afterwards to Casey, Australia’s third station, and our last place to visit. After a few days we will catch the airbus at Wilkins Aerodrome and fly back to Hobart.

Photo of the Richardson Lake station in 2007. In the front you can see the antenna, behind to the left you can see the three solar panels to generate power. On the frozen lake in the background is the field camp and aircraft.
Photo of the Richardson Lake station in 2007. In the front you can see the antenna, behind to the left you can see the three solar panels to generate power. On the frozen lake in the background is the field camp and aircraft.

However, as mentioned earlier, everything strongly depends on weather conditions and just a delay of some days can change everything. For instance, weather and ice conditions could delay our arrival in Davis and force us to stay at the station the entire time, or we could arrive in Mawson but the weather is too bad to go into the field. Our stay could be extended due to such circumstances or, most likely, due to the ice-runway melting. In general, flight cancellations are a common problem in Antarctica.

Alright, so that’s how our field-trip will progress, but have you figured out what the trip is about?

The aim is to install GPS Stations in Enderby Land to survey height changes of the Earth’s crust. As already mentioned in a previous post, stationary GPS stations can detect and measure bedrock elevation changes. These changes are of great importance in studying Glacial Isostatic Adjustment (GIA) as the bedrock adjusts to weight changes (here due to ice).

In Enderby Land the GRACE space mission observed a significant increase in mass between 2002-2006, which appeared to pause between 2007-2008 and restarted in 2009. That increase is either induced by a significant amount of snow accumulation, ongoing uplift of the Earth crust (GIA), or a combination of both. Previous GPS measurements from the existing Richardson Lake GPS station in 2007 and 2008 showed no crustal changes but were taken during the time when GRACE also didn’t detect any changes. The new installations will deliver new observations of the bedrock elevation in Enderby Land and thus answer whether the GRACE signal is induced by snowfall or GIA.

Set up and check of the frame with solar panels to generate power.
Set up and check of the frame with solar panels to generate power.

To get everything organised and prepared, a lot of work had to be done before the trip even started. The equipment had to be set up and tested, non-working parts had to be exchanged, batteries had to be charged, new cables needed to be manufactured. After everything was tested and in working order we had to pack boxes after boxes and had the equipment shipped to Hobart a month before the departure (to enable biosecurity screening, packing and loading).

We had to be checked as well. Before you can be approved for fieldwork in Antarctica you have to undergo a medical check where you will be tested for physical ability including eyesight-, hearing- and lung test, general flexibility, heart activity, chest X-Ray and an all around blood test. On top of the routine medical check we had to undertake a stress ECG as some of our fieldwork will take place at high altitude. Furthermore, you have to be up to date with your First-Aid training.

The entire equipment has to find space in an insulated box. The insulation helps to keep the equipment at a proper temperature, with the warmth generated by the equipment itself.
The entire equipment has to find space in an insulated box. The insulation helps to keep the equipment at a proper temperature, with the warmth generated by the equipment itself.

During your stay in Hobart your clothing equipment has to be organised. The Antarctic Division is providing all essential equipment to keep you warm in the icy weather. Beside the different layers (base-, mid- and outer layer) you are provided with different types of footwear, handwear and headwear  (including sunglasses and goggles). You will also be handed out a survival kit and the entire equipment that is needed to stay in the field. So, hopefully we will be well equipped and looked after and I can update the blog regularly.