In Mawson's footsteps

Modern climatologists are planning a trip to the Antarctic to gather data that they can compare with the measurements taken by the Australian explorer more than 100 years ago. James Mitchell Crow reports on their epic mission.

Sledge party rising on the slopes of Commonwealth Bay / Frank Hurley – State Library of NSW – ON 144/Q791

For the legendary scientist-explorers of a century ago, an expedition to Antarctica was all too often a one-way trip. The Australian voyage that sailed from Hobart in late 1911, led by geologist Douglas Mawson, was no exception. In the summer of 1912, Mawson himself was leading a three-man team when, 300 miles from base, Belgrave Ninnis fell into a snow-covered crevasse, taking the bulk of the team’s provisions with him. Mawson was the only team-member to make it back to base camp, only surviving his own crevasse fall because the sled he was tied to became wedged.

Despite the extreme difficulties that Mawson encountered, he continued to keep a scrupulous scientific record of his expedition, including weather data. Later this year, University of New South Wales (UNSW) climate scientist Chris Turney will lead a team to retrace Mawson’s expedition and repeat his measurements to highlight the extent to which the continent’s climate has changed over the past century.

“Mawson’s team was only meant to be out there a year, but because of the tragedies on the ice, some of the men remained and continued to make measurements for three years,” says Turney. Given that regular Antarctic weather measurements only began with the advent of satellite monitoring in 1979, Mawson’s data provide an invaluable baseline from which to measure climate change.

Turney and his team plan to recreate Mawson’s journey in more ways than one. “In Mawson’s day there was no real government funding and so these explorers had to excite the public to raise funds, and science was a major part of that,” says Turney. “It was a golden age for science communication.” Turney’s voyage will also be privately funded – members of the public can buy berths on the ship – and will emphasise science communication. Regular web-based video link-ups will allow the public ask questions of the scientists as they follow in Mawson’s footsteps.

The biggest challenge for the team will be to attempt to reach the shores of Commonwealth Bay, where Mawson’s hut still stands. In late 2010 a large iceberg knocked the tongue off the nearby Mertz glacier, an 80km chunk of ice that grounded on the seabed just outside the bay, accumulating sea ice that has sealed its entrance. Turney hopes that the sea ice is now so thick that amphibious all-terrain vehicles can cross it and enter the bay, to take measurements at Mawson’s historic hut itself.

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