One of the finest scientific studies of the south was the Australasian Antarctic Expedition of 1911-1914 led by the great scientist and explorer Sir Douglas Mawson. Fast-forward a hundred years and the region continues to pose enormous scientific questions. In 2010, an iceberg the size of Rhode Island, known as B09B, dramatically knocked an 100km-long tongue of ice off the Mertz Glacier into the Southern Ocean, setting off a cascade of change. Inspired by the expeditions of the past, we contacted businesses and advertised berths for sale to take science volunteers south with us. People responded far and wide. We were oversubscribed, and the Australasian Antarctic Expedition 2013-2014 was born.
With the Russian-owned MV Akademik Shokalskiy as the expedition vessel, we set out south from the New Zealand port of Bluff in late November 2013. Fighting our way across the Southern Ocean we worked our way through the wildlife havens of the sub-Antarctic islands before pushing on to Antarctica, successfully pioneering a 65km route across sea ice to reach Mawson's original base at 67˚S - a time capsule from the Edwardian age. During our journey south and on the ice we undertook a number of scientific firsts for the region. We discovered how shifting winds south were causing dramatic warming in the furious 50s; we found significant changes in ocean circulation with the arrival of B09B; and we learnt how local penguin populations were suffering from more extensive sea ice. The data is providing a rich scientific trawl.
Unfortunately, homeward bound we became trapped by a massive breakout of sea ice that moved in from the east, a very real risk in Antarctic waters. With this came the threat of icebergs and the captain pressed the distress button. Before we ran into trouble, we posted daily online reports of our research and aspects of life on the vessel and in the field. When caught in the ice, this extended to reassuring those at home about the wellbeing of all onboard. During the six weeks of the expedition, the website www.spiritofmawson.com received more than 60,000 visits, driving traffic to our social media sites. When the number of television and radio interviews increased, so did discussion about the science. The support was brilliant and the public became engaged in a way we never imagined possible.
The Australasian Antarctic Expedition (AAE) 2013-2014
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