Issues Magazine

Editorial

By By Sally Woollet

Editor

The centenary edition of Issues coincides with the centennial year of Australia’s Antarctic expeditions. From the first Australian explorers to the people who work there today, Antarctica presents unique challenges. Find out about Antarctic medicine, polar shipping, weather forecasting, environmental surveys and remediation, and relive some history of this wild southern continent in Issues 100.

Issues is proud to be publishing its 100th edition. Adding to the occasion is the centenary of Australian Antarctic expeditions, of which the Australasian Antarctic Expedition (AAE; 1911–14) is a part. What better way for Issues to mark it than to celebrate Antarctic endeavour.

Many of our 100th edition contributors have been to the world’s coldest continent, some several times. Here they share their Antarctic perspectives and experiences, also reflecting on the triumphs and hardships of those who have gone before, particularly during the “heroic era” of pioneering Antarctic exploration.

Geologist Douglas Mawson’s interest in Antarctic science, piqued during the Nimrod expedition (1907–09), continued during the AAE. “In Antarctica and on Macquarie Island, collections and/or observations were made in investigative fields including biology, cartography, geology, glaciology, geomagnetics, meteorology, medicine and atmospheric research.”

Mawson’s commitment to Antarctic science persisted, with the British Australian New Zealand Antarctic Research Expedition (BANZARE) and, after the war, a journey aboard the Wyatt Earp. Other scientists accompanying Mawson on various expeditions included biologist John Hunter (BANZARE), geologist Charles Hoadley (AAE), meteorologist Cecil Madigan (AAE), cartographer Alfred Hodgeman (AAE), astronomer Edward Bage (AAE) and physicist Phillip Law on the Wyatt Earp (one of many vessels that have made Antarctic journeys, says Jonothan Davis of the Australian Antarctic Division [p.41]).

Of course, Australia was not the only country interested in Antarctica. This Antarctic expedition centenary is Australasian, with the AAE including New Zealand surgeon Leslie Whetter, magnetician Eric Webb and wireless operator Arthur Sawyer.

“During the International Geophysical Year of 1958–59, 12 countries had been active in Antarctica. Scientists … undertook their scientific work with a spirit of cooperation… simmering tensions with respect to differences of view over sovereign claims was conveniently ignored,” says Andrew Jackson at the Antarctic Climate and Ecosystems Cooperative Research Centre (p.12). Having the largest territory in Antarctica, Australia was keen to have a role in preventing further destabilisation, and its diplomatic actions were significant in the lead-up to the Antarctic Treaty in 1961.

In the National Archives of Australia collection is a telegram from meteorologist Madigan to his South Australian sweetheart with the words: “… all well here enjoying perpetual blizzard”. It’s a cheerful attitude to one of the harshest climates on Earth where, as Mawson said, “Temperatures as low as –28 degrees F. [–60ºC] were experienced in hurricane winds, which blew at a velocity occasionally exceeding one hundred miles per hour [160 km/h]”.

Today’s Antarctic meteorologists have the advantage of many technologies to assist forecasting, such as radiosondes (weather balloons), satellite imagery and modelling systems. Conveying uncertainty is equally essential, says Scott Carpentier, Antarctic weather forecaster at the Bureau of Meteorology (p.16): “We have expectations, largely based on prior experiences, but no one can tell what will happen next week, tomorrow, or even in a couple of minutes with complete confidence”. Despite the suite of technologies, speed of data transfer is also a challenge.

The MD thesis of Dr Archibald McLean, chief medical officer and bacteriologist at the main base at the time of the AAE “highlights a foundation of the conduct of Antarctic human biology and medicine research as a critical adjunct to the role of the expedition doctor.” So says Jeff Ayton (p.20), the Australian Antarctic Division’s chief medical officer, who draws attention to medical research as well as telemedicine and evacuation support as vital elements of Antarctic medicine.

“In no department can a leader spend time more profitably than in the selection of the men who are to accomplish the work” is a Mawson truism heeded to this day. Ayton reiterates Mawson’s comment, and winter crew station doctor Alexander Kumar concurs (p.24), with references to the stringent psychological testing that accompanies any selection of expeditioner. “Numerous tests and research into psychological screening remain inconclusive,” Kumar says, but “the search for the ‘ideal’ overwintering candidate profile continues”. Other screening covers blood-borne viruses, plus there are examinations of other body systems. Waiting in Antarctica are sleep deprivation, altered cognition, vitamin D deficiency due to lack of sunlight, and the risks of accident, injury and fire.

More human activity in Antarctica means more waste, and more issues for disposal. “Although the Madrid Protocol guides all activities in Antarctica, the actual management of wastewater by the many countries operating in Antarctica varies considerably, from no treatment to advanced sewage treatment methods,” says marine ecologist Jonathan Stark (p.28). Stark was part of a research diving program aiming to “better understand the impact of the [Davis station] outfall and help improve management of sewage throughout Antarctica”. The previous wastewater infrastructure went offline in 2005, with untreated wastewater effluent being discharged into the sea since. The conclusive findings of impacts have prompted moves to establish a state-of-the-art treatment system at Davis.

Soil remediation technologies are within the purview of research by Kathryn Mumford and Geoff Stevens at the Department of Chemical and Biochemical Engineering, University of Melbourne (p.34). “Oil and fuel contaminants are among the most extensive and environmentally damaging pollution problems in polar regions,” they write. Freezing conditions, low microbe numbers and dry conditions are all exacerbating factors. The permeable reactive barrier they have developed has now moved into a sixth successful year.

Issues 100’s focus is largely on the science of Antarctic expedition. Australian Antarctic science began in Mawson’s day and will continue, although focusing less on fundamental science and more on environment and conservation (p.4). Regardless of its type, science in Antarctica is not possible without skills such as those of navigation, cartography, communications, cooking and carpentry. And we couldn’t forget the important and irreplaceable creative work of artists such as Frank Hurley. So much more than a record of events, Hurley’s work captures many moments of Antarctic history, collectively conveying the spirit of the heroic era. Some of his iconic photographs are featured in this edition.

An Antarctic expedition of a different kind departed in 1997. The first of 10 major expeditions to date by the Mawson’s Huts Foundation began repairs to the roof and beams of Mawson’s main hut at Cape Denison. Work so far “has prevented any further ingress of ice and allowed the excavation of ice from the interior, uncovering a treasure trove of artefacts – just as they were left when the Australian Antarctic Expedition departed for home in December 1913,” says David Jensen, Foundation chairman and CEO (p.37).

“The centenary of the Australian Antarctic Expedition … is among a cluster of 100-year Antarctic exploration celebrations,” says adventurer Jo Davies (p.46). Following in the steps of her hero, Ernest Shackleton, she plans to celebrate the centenary of his Endurance expedition of 1914 by travelling from the Weddell Sea to the US McMurdo base via the South Pole – completing a journey that, for the sake of his team, Shackleton left unfinished.

Issues 100 has been greatly enhanced by the assistance of Wendy Pyper, editor of the Australian Antarctic Division’s Australian Antarctic Magazine, which supplemented this edition with articles and images on pages 4, 12 and 41.