The genesis of Antarctic science
The year 2012 marks one of the most significant centenaries in Australia’s history. In 1912, a group of expeditioners landed at Commonwealth Bay in east Antarctica, and started a legacy of Australian involvement in Antarctica which continues to this day.
Sir Douglas Mawson, who led the expedition, is a true Australian hero. A geologist from Adelaide, Mawson had previously been to Antarctica as part of Sir Ernest Shackleton’s Nimrod Expedition 1907-1909. On this expedition he was one of the team to achieve the first ascent of Mount Erebus, a volcano in Antarctica, and also one of the team to first reach the South Magnetic Pole.
Mawson then turned down an invitation to be part of Scott’s ill-fated 1910 Terra Nova expedition to the South Pole, preferring instead to plan his own expedition to Antarctica, an expedition that instead of focussing on reaching a landmark, would focus on scientific discovery.
Mawson began planning the expedition in 1910, with funding coming from the Australasian Association for the Advancement of Science as well as public subscriptions and donations. The men selected for the expedition (and they were all men), were primarily from Australian and New Zealand universities. In the end, of those who were stationed on the Antarctic continent, twenty-two were Australian, four were from New Zealand, three from Britain and one from Switzerland. These men would establish two bases on the Antarctic continent – a main base at Commonwealth Bay and a second base on the Shackleton Ice Shelf to the west. An additional team was stationed at Macquarie Island, between Australia and Antarctica. These men would live on in legend as members of the Australasian Antarctic Expedition.
Luckily for us, the expedition took film cameras down to document their expedition, with one of the expeditioners being Frank Hurley, a photographer who became legendary for his work filming several Antarctic expeditions. The films that the expedition recorded while in Antarctica give an amazing insight into Antarctica and the exploration of Antarctica in the early 20th century.
The rarely seen film of this expedition, which is occasionally (incorrectly) called Home of the Blizzard, depicts just some of the testing conditions that travellers to Antarctica face. From unbelievably rough seas to winds strong enough to blow a man clean off his feet, the unforgiving nature of Antarctica tests all those who visit, and especially so, those early expeditioners who went not knowing what to expect. The film also shows some of the incredible ecology of the region – various types of birds great and small, Adelie penguins, and seals. In fact one of the lighter moments in the film comes seeing expeditioners perched on the back of these great seals and riding them along the beach as one would a horse. How times have changed, no one would consider doing something like that today. One can only imagine, however, being in the audience at a public screening in 1915 in London and seeing these images for the first time – it must have seemed otherworldly.
The expedition was to end in tragedy however. The film of the Australasian Antarctic Expedition ends with a scene of men preparing for a sledging expedition and practicing setting up their tent in hostile conditions. In November 1912 the Far Eastern Party, made up of Mawson, Swiss skiing champion Xavier Mertz and Lieutenant Belgrave Ninnis departed the base in Commonwealth Bay to push towards Victoria Land in the east, collecting geological records and mapping the area along the way. Ninnis and Mertz were those men seen in the film.
Over 500km into the expedition, and far beyond any rescue, Ninnis, a large proportion of the supplies and the strongest dog team crashed through an ice cap and disappeared into a crevasse. Mertz and Mawson remained at the site calling into the crevasse, hoping to hear from Ninnis who was nowhere to be seen in the black of the bottomless cavern. There was to be no reply, the only sign of the sledge were the bodies of two dogs on a ledge nearly 50 metres below the lip of the crevasse. The supplies, dogs, and their companion were lost. In the face of this tragedy the focus of the sledging expedition changed totally, from exploring the geological history of Antarctica to one purely of survival.
Mawson and Mertz immediately turned for Commonwealth Bay, however with only 10 days of rations they must have felt that tragedy was sure to await them. With supplies running low, and no food to feed the dogs, Mawson and Mertz were forced to eat the dogs one-by-one just to survive. Ninnis and the supplies had been lost on December 14, and during the final week of December the condition of both men had deteriorated, on December 31 Mertz wrote “really tired [and] shall write no more.” On January 6 Mertz collapsed, and two days later died. Mertz is still buried somewhere in Antarctica, wrapped in his sleeping bag.
The deterioration of the men’s health is suspected to be due to their consumption of the dog meat. While not normally a problem, they had also consumed the livers of the dogs, and this was to be their undoing. The dog livers were extremely rich in Vitamin A, and the men had effectively poisoned themselves.
After three days waiting for the weather to clear Mawson carried on alone, trekking through what had turned into a white hell, hoping to make it back to Commonwealth Bay and salvation. The distance to go was estimated at 160km. Suffering from extreme malnourishment in the extreme conditions, Mawson’s skin started separating, at one point he found the soles of his feet had separated from his feet in one whole layer. Making progress of around 8km each day, Mawson struggled on, having to rescue himself from numerous falls into crevasses, and cutting his sledge in half to save weight.
On January 29 he came across a cairn containing food left by a search party – he had missed the men by as little as 6 hours. From a note at the cairn he was guided to another food deposit around 34km away. However this was not salvation, he still needed to continue to push towards the base camp but was trapped by a blizzard. Finally, a month after the death of Mertz, Mawson was able to make the final push towards camp and was spotted by men working outside the hut as he descended a nearby slope. One story suggests that upon seeing Mawson, frostbitten, dishevelled and malnourished, the men didn’t recognise their own expedition leader and asked “Which one are you?”
The men at Commonwealth Bay had searched for the Far Eastern Party following their failure to return and the expedition’s ship, the Aurora, sailed along the coast hoping to see the team. However with winter conditions approaching, the Aurora was forced to leave Commonwealth Bay for Australia just hours prior to Mawson’s return. The ship was contacted by wireless radio, however conditions were too bad to allow it to return. As a result, Mawson was forced to winter at the camp with 6 men who had volunteered to remain behind in case Mawson, Ninnis or Mertz did return. Mawson and the men were eventually extracted in December 1913.
The other activities of the Australasian Antarctic Expedition were more successful than Mawson’s Far Eastern Party. A wireless station at Macquarie Island was established on the way to Antarctica, allowing radio transmissions from Antarctica to Australia for the first time. Important geological observations were made, in particular at the rock formations in Wilkes Land, while a chondrite meteorite was discovered elsewhere. The metrological conditions at Cape Denison, where the Commonwealth Bay base was established, were also studied for the first time, and has since been dubbed the windiest place on earth. Biological and ecological observations and samples were also taken, and over 2000 miles of previously uncharted coastline was mapped. The extensive scientific reports from the expedition were not published until between 1922 and 1942. This scientific program contrasts sharply with many Antarctic expeditions, few of which concentrated on running scientific programs.
For leading the Australasian Antarctic Expedition and surviving the Far Eastern sledging expedition, Mawson was knighted in 1914 to become Sir Douglas. Mawson’s month-long solo trek is now considered one of the most heroic feats of survival during Antarctic expeditions.
Australia’s involvement in Antarctica was all catalysed by this first expedition led by Mawson, and 100 years on Australia’s involvement is as strong as ever. Today the Australian Antarctic Division (AAD) runs all of Australia’s activities in the Antarctic, running and maintaining bases, transport and co-ordinating the expeditioners. And like that first expedition by Mawson, Australia’s activities are largely scientific, running a comprehensive research program.
Glaciologists have made huge advancements in our understanding of glacier formation and movement, while ice coring has revealed multi-million year old secrets about the living conditions on earth. Geoscience – following on from Mawson – has also found important discoveries about the formation of Antarctica, and how the continents of the Earth came to be. Climate science, ecology, marine biology and atmospheric sciences have all also benefitted from Antarctic research, as have human physiology and astronomy. And the future of Antarctic research will include study into Climate Processes and Change, Terrestrial and Nearshore Ecosystems, and Southern Ocean Ecosystems. In addition, the AAD will continue research into what they are theming Frontier Science – which will include research into astronomy, human biology, physiology and medicine, geosciences, and space weather.
However, one doesn’t need to be a scientist to get to Antarctica, AAD also recruits chefs, airfield personnel, mechanics and even carpenters to live and work in the Antarctic. Today vessels much larger than the Aurora traverse the rough seas, and passenger jets chartered by the AAD fly staff and supplies from Hobart direct to the Wilkins blue-ice runway, effectively an airport built on the ice in Antarctica to support Australia’s activities.
With 100 years of scientific history in Antarctica, all started by Mawson, Australia is well placed to play a major role in the next century of Antarctic science.
By Ben Lewis