Aust landmark ice campaign on retreating glacier

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Australian Antarctic Program news

Australia’s major science campaign to study one of the fastest retreating glaciers in East Antarctica, is already being described as a landmark project.

The Denman Glacier is vulnerable to climate change and alone holds a potential sea level rise of 1.5m. To understand this important region, the Australian Antarctic Division (AAD) is facilitating a three-year science mission to study the glacier system and the Shackleton ice shelf.

The project began in the 2022 and 2023 summer, building supplies were dropped in to Edgeworth David base camp in – an ice free area near the glacier – and a small team of expeditioners built huts and timber platforms for tents. The camp is named after colonial era explorer Sir Tannatt William Edgeworth David.

The scientists are drawn from the AAD, the Australian Centre for Excellence in Antarctic Science (ACEAS), Securing Antarctica’s Environmental Future (SAEF) and the Australian Antarctic Program Partnership (AAPP).

The science conducted included drilling and analysis of ice core records; analysis of subglacial hydrology and composition; collection and analysis of sediments to understand environmental histories, wildlife, microbial and biodiversity surveys, landscape and ocean mapping and deployment of autonomous monitoring stations.

Tonnes of Antarctic ice, sediment and rock samples are now being shipped back to Australia from the base camp at Bunger Hills on the Denman Glacier.

Dr David Souter, the Australian Antarctic Division’s (AAD) Acting Chief Scientist says there is enough material to ensure scientists are engaged for years.

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David Souter in Antarctica (Image D. Souter)

Souter visited the site over summer and worked there for eight weeks.

“I think this will ultimately be a landmark campaign for the Antarctic program,” he says. “The geologists alone collected one tonne of rock and they’ll now be analysed for years to come. That’s an intergenerational contribution to science.

“The hot water drilling team have probably found things that are genuinely new in terms of how water is circulating underneath the Shackleton Ice Shelf and that will contribute a much greater understanding of how stable our ice shelves are.

“The breadth of work that’s been done will be scientifically very important as analysis is conducted and papers are published.

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Leaving Bunger Hills (Image: Adam Darragh AAD)

Despite it being summer the conditions were often difficult, says field leader, David Knoff.

“You’re living in a tent for weeks on end, in 60 knot winds and it’s -10 or -15°C and your water bottle is freezing in your tent, but the minute the sun came up, everyone was so keen to get to work again.

“And that was interesting, having to manage the fatigue of others because they’d work until eight o’clock at night and be up and ready to go the next day. “Sometimes I’d have to say ‘OK, we’re going to do a half day tomorrow. We’re going to get a good sleep and have a late start so people can recharge’ ”.

“The generators would start up at 6am and then you’d get yourself up and dressed and make some porridge for breakfast. One challenge we had was that in -10°C, honey isn’t overly liquid so we repurposed a battery heater to be a honey heater.

“Then we’d sit around a WhatsApp conference call at 9am for a weather brief – myself, the pilots, the senior field training officer, the science coordinator and the comms operator. Most of the scientists would gather around a central spot near the coffee, so we’d go in and confirm the plan for the day.”

Read more: A year in Antarctica

Don Hudspeth, the project manager, says the next summer campaign will be slightly smaller.

“We’re setting a maximum of 25 to 30 people – we had 40 this year – so there’s a reduced number of scientists going back, either to do science that hasn’t been done before or to retrieve instrumentation.

“We might rotate people to Casey and back to give them a break a bit next season but we’ll see – you need some people all season for continuity but you need to be careful you don’t burn them out. Some people were really tired by the end of this season.”

Extracts from an original article on Australian Antarctic Program news

The Ultramarine project – focussing on research and innovation in our marine environments – is supported by Minderoo Foundation.

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