Find out what life is like at an Antarctic station

Australia’s history in Antarctica goes back
over 100 years. The first Australasian expedition to Antarctica
was led by Sir Douglas Mawson who landed at Commonwealth Bay in 1912 at the site we now
know as Mawson’s Huts. Mawson and other early explorers realised
Antarctica’s importance to Australia – as a neighbouring continent to our south and
for its potential for scientific research. Because of the efforts and vision of people
like Mawson, Antarctica is now the only continent in the world set aside for peace and science. It’s protected by the Antarctic Treaty System,
an international agreement that ensures Antarctica is used for peaceful purposes only, with no
military activities or bases allowed there. It also allows countries open access to do
science in Antarctica. Australian scientists are looking at the role Antarctica and the
Southern Ocean play in global climate systems and how changes in the environment are affecting
the plants and animals that live there. Our scientists study most species in the food
chain from the large animals like whales, seals and penguins, down to the much smaller
species such as krill and microscopic plants called phytoplankton. Australia has three scientific research stations
in Antarctica and one on Macquarie Island. The oldest research station is Mawson, which
was built over 60 years ago and takes the longest to reach – around 15 days by sea. Davis station was established soon after Mawson,
then Casey station was built. The stations are like small towns with everything
the expeditioners need like lighting, heating, and water. They have scientific laboratories,
mechanical workshops, a doctor’s clinic, food and equipment storage, communications, and
of course the living quarters, where the expeditioners sleep, eat their meals and relax. Inside the
living quarters are all the comforts of home, such as lounge areas, a gym, movie theatre
and games areas. The stations all have carpenters– renovating
and fixing things mostly inside over winter. There are electricians and plumbers to make
sure there is fresh water and to look after the wastewater treatment. There are mechanics who keep the generator
going for lights and heating, and who also look after the vehicles on station. The machinery includes over-snow tracked vehicles
called Hagglunds which are ideal for taking people and equipment out into the field. For
shorter trips the expeditioners use quad bikes. People from the weather bureau observe and
forecast the weather and communications staff keep all the radio, satellite and computer
equipment going. A doctor lives at each station to look after
people’s health and in case anyone gets sick or has an accident. Most important is the chef who cooks all
the meals, unless on a day off when others take their turn in the kitchen. Food is a
big part of daily life for the expeditioners! Food is resupplied once a year when the ship
arrives. The only fresh food during the long winter
months are the vegetables and herbs the expeditioners grow in a hydroponics facility. It’s a popular
place to work because it’s warm and the expeditioners love having fresh lettuces or tomatoes. The warmth inside the buildings is a big contrast to the weather outside. Sometimes
the expeditioners can’t go outside for days at a time. The wind can get to over 200 kilometres
an hour and the air can be so thick with snow you can’t see a metre in front of you. In such extreme cold the right clothing is
really important. The type and amount of clothing needed to
stay warm and dry depends on the time of the year, the location, and the activity the person
is doing. For working on the ice during summer, expeditioners
have long woollen thermal underwear, trousers and a shirt with a windproof layer on top.
In the winter they wear big heavy boots, huge fluffy gloves, and lots of layers topped with
a thick puffy jacket and a windproof layer. When walking, skiing, or working outside,
you need to have layers of clothing so that they can be easily adjusted. It’s important
not to sweat, especially in winter. Clothes that are full of moisture will freeze and
then make you really cold. The Antarctic expeditioners love celebrations,
especially mid winter, which is the shortest, darkest day of the year, around the 21st June.
For a couple of weeks around this time, the sun doesn’t rise at all. Life on station continues
pretty normally, with regular chores and activities, but everyone stays mainly indoors. From that
point on the expeditioners have the return of the sun and longer days to look forward
to. Mid-winter is traditionally celebrated with a swim. The people on station cut a hole
in the ice for what is more a quick dip in the water which is around minus two degrees.
The air temperature is often around minus 20 degrees. Transport It is at this time of year that expeditioners
start to think about when they will return home to their family and friends after having
been in Antarctica for a year or more. They travel to and from the Antarctic mostly
by ship, on Australia’s icebreaker the Aurora Australis – sometimes called the ‘orange
roughy’ because of its bright colour. Some expeditioners fly home on a plane similar
to the ones that fly between the capital cities of Australia. The plane lands in Antarctica
on an ice runway called Wilkins runway, which is about 70 kilometres, or four hours’ by
Hagglunds, from Casey station. The flight from Hobart takes about four and a half hours. Although the expeditioners look forward to
getting home, they all love working in such a beautiful and special place that is like
nowhere else on earth.

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