Antarctica: a magnet for explorers, adventurers and scientists, and one of the harshest places on Earth.
“They say one of the things you miss the most is your sense of smell. There’s no vegatation, no flowers or pollen – but there is the smell of fishy penguins.”
It’s December, the glassware has been been pushed back on the lab benches, and Professor Dianne Jolley, from the University of Wollongong’s School of Chemistry, is preparing students Darren Koppel and Gwilym Price as they pack their bags for a summer of fieldwork in Antarctica – the driest continent on Earth. The lack of humidity in Antarctica zaps your sense of smell and taste, one of the many trade-offs for scientists working in the deep south.
By February, Darren and Gwilym will have spend three months at Casey Station, one of three permanent research outposts in Australian Antarctic territory. It will be a test of stamina, persistence and focus to work in high winds and the glaring sun. Interruptions from curious wildlife will, however, be a welcome distraction.
Years in the making
The team have been working with a new tool to inform environmental management guidelines for Antarctica, which with 100 years of human occupation is not as pristine as we would like to think. Before a protocol for environmental protection into force in 1998, Antarctic research stations were burning, burying, or dumping their waste, which now lies in wait.
Remediation of these legacy waste sites has largely been placed on hold because it is not yet known what effect it would have on the environment. Sometimes it could be better to leave waste locked up in sediment, rather than exposing it to the elements and putting sensitive organisms at risk.
So far, Dianne has been focused on contaminants in temperate and tropical regions. “I started working on the [device] 10 years ago, trialling and validating it there to develop water quality and sediment quality guidelines,” she says.
“At the moment, we’re relying on information that we have for temperate and tropical areas,” Dianne explains. “But the species aren’t the same and the kinetics [of chemical reactions] are completely different, everything moves much slower, because it’s so cold.”
The devices will be deployed in the environment – in melt streams, the ocean, marine sediments and soils – to measure metal contaminants which may be leaching out of historic waste deposits.
In the lab, Darren has shown that their devices can predict the toxicity of contaminants to marine microalgae found in Antarctica. Once validated in the field, the devices could act as an alarm to signal which waste sites are in need of remediation first – before any harm is done.
“I’m really excited to get into the field and see what they can tell us,” he says.
Prepare for landing
Casey Station is a short four-hour flight southwest of Hobart, then a 3-hour drive from the icy airstrip to base camp. The team have sent two loads of cargo ahead, mostly bulky equipment for their fieldwork. What remains is their personal luggage: “A lot of thermals and a lot of gloves,” Dianne says.
It may have been a commercial plane that the team boarded in Hobart, but it’s not your typical flight.
You have to get your survival gear mid-flight in case of an incident on arrival. Being so remote, the station has limited medical services and you have to be able to survive if something were to happenDianne Jolley
Imagine that, after years of foundational work and months of preparation, you suit up – still with two hours to go.
The plane is also half empty. On any given flight, the number of passengers is based on the capacity of the medical services at the receiving end. “So we had an entire plane with very people on it,” Dianne says. An introduction to isolation.
“There’s about 17 scientists at Casey Station out of a population of 100 – that’s a lot of support staff.
The staff, some of whom stay for the winter, includes station managers, tradies, engineers, mechanics, communication officers, field training officers, doctors and chefs. “There’s such a good team here,’ Dianne adds. “It’s a well-oiled machine.”
Good food is essential to keep spirits high. Since the stations is only restocked once a year, the chefs have to get creative.
“The menu revolves around whatever they defrost in bulk,” Darren says. “They seem to be trying to get through the yellow beans at the moment, but for Christmas they pulled out something special – pork belly, turkey, salad and seafood.”
Before getting stuck into any fieldwork, there are lab and vehicle inductions to be done, survival training to be completed, and orientation sessions for the camp.
Darren’s first impressions of Casey Station are cheery: “The sun is bright – all the time. The food is great and they have a coffee machine.” Survival training was a wake-up call, hearing that the group before them got caught in a surprise blizzard.
“We camped overnight in an emergency bivvy, locally referred to as a chip packet,” Darren says. “It’s an orange plastic sack with a tie at one end that you sleep in. It was surprising how warm it got, considering how thin and flimsy it is.”
Darren says Antarctica is lovely in summer on a good day, hovering between -5°C and 0°C, but the weather can turn suddenly so everyone must carry a survival pack whenever they head outside. “It contains what is considered the minimum clothing required if you get caught out.”
The waiting game
This year, the sea ice hung around the wharf at Casey Station much later than normal, delaying fieldwork and postponing Christmas. Darren, Gwilym and Dianne, along with Kath Brown from the Australian Antarctic Division, kept themselves busy with experiments in the on-site lab, but there were a few grumblings from other staff who were coming off the back of a long, dark winter.
“The icebreaker Aurora Australis had to head back out to sea because bad weather was approaching and the sea ice is taking its sweet time to clear out from the wharf,” Darren reports.
The RV Aurora Australis brings a year’s worth of food, fuel and supplies to Casey Station. It’s all hands-on deck when the ship arrives to unload 52,000 kg of frozen food and pump one million litres of fuel ashore. “We were monitoring the fuel lines on 4-hour rotating shifts to make sure the pack ice didn’t hit the two-kilometre-long pipe,” Darren says.
After a hard day of work, staff can head to the bar nicknamed Splinters, which was built out of wood from the old Wilkes Station across the bay and named after the last Husky kept at the station before dogs were banned.
“There’s also an amateur brewery that has 4 types of beers and a cider,” Darren says. “It’s a pretty fun place to socialise while washing or filling bottles.” Three weeks in, the resupply complete, the team hit the water to deploy their devices.
Getting to work
Antarctica is teeming with life. Curious Adélie penguins often stop by (one jumped aboard their dinghy) while leopard seals swim below the surface. Amongst the mossy rocks, there is a forest of microinvertebrates – nematodes, rotifers, ciliates, and tardigrades.
“It’s an incredibly interconnected ecosystem where the penguin rookeries provide nutrients in the snow melt that blooms the algae and this coincides with the microinvertebrates coming out of hibernation,” Darren says. But if the snow melt runs through buried waste, contaminants may leach into the water.
The team has been deploying their devices to detect any contaminants around an abandoned station that the Australian Antarctic Division wants to remediate. To be an effective tool, the devices need to withstand polar conditions and the measurements need to correlate with the effects of contaminants on different Antarctic species.
“We started by isolating microinvertebrates and testing their sensitivity alongside an algae and a moss,” Darren says. The team have also been analysing bacteria populations in sediment samples to look at how they differ between impacted and non-impacted sites. The next step is to compare measurements from their devices – which will be in position for up to one month – to those biological responses.
“Because the kinetics are so slow, you’ve got to monitor them for much longer to get reliable and robust results,” Dianne explains.
“We need to look at a number of different organisms to ensure that the data represents the complexity of the environment,” Gwilym adds.
With ambitious targets and tight project deadlines, the team has been working long hours under the pressure to succeed and the ever-present sun. “It’s our one shot to get work done,” Darren says. At the five-week mark, he admits he has been feeling a bit burnt out.
“We’ve been overly ambitious in our planning,” Darren continues. “That was to give us ample contingency if something didn’t work. Luckily, nearly everything has worked so we were staring at an oppressive workload, which we’ve decided to scale back on.”
I love being able to contribute in some small way to this global challenge. Plus it's such a magical place to be workingDarren Koppel
Another thing is the lack of downtime. Working alongside other enthusiastic scientists and surrounded by people with some incredible life experiences, it can be hard to clock-off entirely – everyone has a story. “I find myself having to be a hermit for a night every now and then. I didn’t expect to have to do that in Antarctica,” Darren says.
A good night’s sleep is a must, and exercise is encouraged. On Sundays, staff can take a bus out to the small plane runway for a spot of cycling, running or cross-country skiing.
Keeping in mind the significance of his work is strong motivation for Darren to get back out there
“It’s been tremendous what the team have done,” Dianne says. The scientific data they have collected will underpin environmental management decisions in the Australian Antarctic territory and help other nations to clean up their act too.
“That’s a really attractive thing about working in this space,” Gwilym says. “You see the impact of your research within your lifetime, if not around the time it happens.”
“Australia is leading the way in environmental protection in Antarctica,” Darren says. “With the growing number of research stations, scientists, and tourists so grows our responsibility as stewards of this unique environment.”
These two young researchers are stepping up to the plate.