In Antarctica the race is on for scientific supremacy and to find an ice-scientist’s Holy Grail - a 1,000,000 year old ice core.
It’s thought that’s where the secrets to understanding global warming may have been snap frozen.
And the best place to look – the vast Australian Antarctic Territory.
Presenter Mark Corcoran asks if the Australian Government really knows what it’s sitting on in the frozen south and if enough money and scientific wherewithal has been committed to chasing the big answers to the big problem of global warming.
As analysis emerges that Antarctica is melting quicker than previously thought, the warming world’s Great White Hope is also becoming a very crowded place.
Now the Chinese are ramping up their efforts in Antarctica in a quest for global scientific prestige. This summer, China launched a massive inland expedition to build a base at the highest and coldest point in Australian Antarctica. (Under the terms of the Antarctic Treaty, they didn’t need Canberra’s permission to do so.)
Corcoran was on hand as the headquarters ship of the Chinese Expedition, the Xue Long (Snow Dragon) dropped anchor off Australia’s Casey Station.
But are the Chinese driven by climate change science? Or are they - and other energy and revenue hungry nations - staking a claim in the Antarctica’s extraordinary untapped riches.
The Antarctic Treaty still keeps national ambitions in check – and forbids minerals and energy exploitation, but for how long?
And can Australia continue to credibly lay claim 42% of this continent if its once dominant presence is seen to be melting away?
CORCORAN: Early last century this icy continent was carved up in a land grab – with Australia claiming the biggest slice – 42%. Then came an international treaty that froze the claims, science became the new sovereignty of the Antarctic. Now the race is on to save the planet.
DR JACK HOLT: “If it all melted, global sea level would go up 60 to 70 metres.”
CORCORAN: But politics is also back on the ice. China has arrived and is chasing the prestige of being the first to unlock Antarctica’s global warming secrets.
DR EDI ALBERT: “Why of a sudden are we finding other nations… you know Italy, France, China, suddenly contributing millions of dollars in equivalent to building new statements? And the answer here isn’t.. it can’t just be science can it? It’s about minerals.”
CORCORAN: It’s a race Australian expeditioners fear losing.
GRAHAM COOK: “I would think that the Government really needs to look at what we’re doing down here and decide what it is that we want to do down here, and fund it appropriately.”
CORCORAN: Our Antarctic expedition sets forth from Hobart, not in an icebreaker but aboard an airliner. The Australian Government started weekly summer flights to its Antarctic stations last year. For decades the only way south was an epic two week voyage through some of the world’s most treacherous seas. Now that’s all been reduced to a four and a half hour ride in an airbus.
Our destination appears as a distant slash on the ice. Centrepiece of the 46 million dollar Airlink project is the Wilkins Runway. It’s built on a huge glacier, making it one of the world’s few airports that moves, 12 metres a year. This is no place to linger and the ground crew swiftly load passengers and cargo for the home leg.
The 65 kilometre drive to Casey Station takes nearly as long as the flight. Out here it’s easy to be overwhelmed by the vastness of the empty continent, twice the size of Australia, 98% covered by ice.
Casey’s one of 3 Australian stations clinging to the Antarctic coast.
It looks like the mining camp that Lego built, the colour coding instantly identifying a building’s function.
The new Air Link has sent Casey into overdrive for the short summer research season. This is station leader Graham Cook’s third year long stint down here and he says the long periods of isolation are now history.
GRAHAM COOK: [Casey Station leader] “In the past we had people come down on the ship and they were here for the whole of the summer or for the summer and the winter - and now we are finding that every week there’s 15/16 new people come in on a flight and 15 people go out so the culture of the station population changes. We’ve got new friends every week.
CORCORAN: On arrival everyone, us included, is kitted up for 24 hours survival training.
MARTIN BENAVENTE: “We’ll walk around today covering as many of the skills as we need to for survival training, including tonight to bivvy out or stay out for the night without a tent.”
CORCORAN: With 80 kilometre an hour gusts and the wind chill of minus 30, we trudge out beyond the rocky coastal fringe into nothing, just the gentle rise of the ice, into what the old hands dubbed ‘the Great White Hell’.
“So this is a fairly typical summer’s day in the Antarctic?”
MARTIN BENAVENTE: “Reasonably, yeah reasonably.”
CORCORAN: Here in East Antarctica there’s no sign of the tourist numbers drawn to the more accessible west, directly under South America. Harsh conditions prevail and you have to know how to survive as the Antarctic can very swiftly kill you.
MARTIN BENAVENTE: “The weather could change here from a clear blue sky to a full white-out or blizzard, in as little as about twenty minutes at Casey Station.”
CORCORAN: But good weather can return just as fast. We settle down for a night on the ice, watching a summer sky that never completely darkens, when the seductive lure of this strange world finally reveals itself.
Modern jet aircraft get the scientists here, but out on the skiway, a very different aviation experience awaits. This World War II vintage DC-3 is regarded as the toughest plane for the job ahead. It’s the centrepiece of the ICECAP project, involving Australia, the UK and the US with Canadian pilots. They’re all part of the International Polar Year, a massive multinational research scheme investigating climate change.
American glaciologist Jack Holt is part scientist, part explorer.
DR JACK HOLT: [Glaciologist, University of Texas] “This part of the Antarctic ice sheet has been largely unexplored and so this international program is the big first effort to understand what’s beneath the surface.”
CORCORAN: “What percentage of the world’s ice is locked up here?”
DR JACK HOLT: “Oh it’s over 90% of the world’s ice. It’s kind of amazing that we don’t know what’s beneath it because it’s a big part of our planet.”
CORCORAN: The ICECAP team takes off in the half light of midnight, when interference from the earth’s magnetic field is lowest. 50 metre high ice cliffs mark the very edge of vast glaciers before they sheer off.
DR JACK HOLT: “Some of these glaciers like Totten Glacier here, it’s catchment - the area where all of the snow and the ice accumulates and drains into it - is thousands of kilometres across. I mean it’s huge. It probably contains more ice in this catchment than all of Greenland and West Antarctica combined.”
CORCORAN: “That’s just one.”
DR JACK HOLT: “That’s just one.”
CORCORAN: Deep ice means old ice. Find Antarctica’s deepest ice, in parts nearly 5 kilometres thick and Jack Holt will know where to drill for the Holy Grail of climate change research – a one million year old core of ice.
DR JACK HOLT: “There was some kind of a change about a million years ago in how the earth’s climate system works and there may have been even more rapid climate change in the past beyond 800,000 years, so one of the things we’re doing is searching for even older ice in Antarctica to core and study direct samples of the atmosphere from over a million years ago.”
CORCORAN: Assisting in this scientific treasure hunt is an array of sophisticated equipment. Ice penetrating radar and even part of a navigation system borrowed from a US nuclear submarine. This summer they’ll cover an area bigger than New South Wales. Every flight is a mission of discovery as they detect massive mountain ranges, valleys and amazingly vast unfrozen lakes – all buried deep beneath the ice.
DR JACK HOLT: “This is like a… in some sense, a final frontier on this planet. East Antarctica where we’re standing has an ice sheet that, if it all melted, global sea level would go up 60-70 metres and so if it changes just a tiny fraction, you could see significant increases in sea level.”
CORCORAN: Out on the water there’s a real sense of urgency as Australian scientists, like Martin Riddle, chase answers to one of the hottest environmental and political issues of our time.
“Why is the Antarctic so important to climate change research?”
DR MARTIN RIDDLE: “For a number of reasons actually. It’s one of the most sensitive parts of the world to climate change - to climate change processes - so it’s one of the places where we’re going to see the impacts of climate change first. But it’s also really important because there are long term records of past climates locked away in the Antarctic ice.”
CORCORAN: While international attention has focussed on the northern hemisphere, Greenland and the Arctic, it’s what happens down here that could really tip the balance. For years it was assumed Antarctica had escaped global warming. Not anymore.
“Is the Antarctic ice subject to climate change…. global warming?”
DR MARTIN RIDDLE: “It’s pretty certain that the Antarctic peninsular is losing some ice. Some of the glacier basins there are definitely shrinking. It’s not yet confirmed whether the East Antarctic is actually shrinking yet, and some of the work that’s happening here at the moment is looking at that very question.”
CORCORAN: Scientists now estimate global sea levels could rise by one and a half metres by the end of this century. That’s nearly double the most pessimistic prediction of only two years ago. But no one has accurately calculated the Antarctic factor, the point of catastrophic polar meltdown.
DR MARTIN RIDDLE: “If it does happen it will be something that happens over centuries and thousands of years. It’s a long term thing but if it does happen and if we get to a point, a tipping point where it can’t turn back, it will be completely out of our control.”
CORCORAN: But there’s another far more immediate climate change crisis looming in just three decades and it threatens the very survival of these penguins and other wildlife. It’s called ‘ocean acidification’, increasing amounts of man-made CO2 gases are being absorbed by these freezing waters and may soon start killing off minute marine life, severing a vital link in the Antarctic food chain.
DR MARTIN RIDDLE: The iconic species of the Antarctic, the penguins, the seals, the whales, are all dependent on these small planktonic organisms for their survival.
CORCORAN: “So you’re talking about a catastrophic problem emerging here?”
DR MARTIN RIDDLE: “Absolutely so. Yes, a complete change-over in the eco system. We’ll cross this threshold in about thirty years, but ocean acidification is a problem that we’ve got to deal with now. It is very, very immediate. We’re going to see those changes happen first in the Antarctic and if we don’t do something about our CO2 emissions, we’re then going to see them happening in temperate areas and on tropics.”
CORCORAN: The Australian Government proclaims its commitment to climate change science but at Casey there’s frustration that the rhetoric isn’t matched by reality. Surprisingly, there’s only a dozen researchers here. Most of the 76 expeditioners are busy just keeping the station running.
DR MARTIN RIDDLE: With the introduction of the Air transport system, we haven’t yet had the scientific payback from that. We’re still putting in some of the infrastructure. So you will have seen that at Casey there’s a lot of people, but there’s relatively few scientists down here at the moment.
CORCORAN: Airlink aside, the Antarctic Division’s annual budget has remained frozen at about $100 million for the past decade. Graham Cook says his team is increasingly overworked and under-resourced.
GRAHAM COOK: “I think we could do a lot more but it’s one of those areas of Government that is vastly underfunded and we do a great job for the funds that we get and you know there’s a lot more work that could be done, a lot more science could be done in Antarctica. If some of our ministers are out there listening to this interview, guys open the purse strings up.”
CORCORAN: Fortunately it’s not money but a sense of adventure that lures most expeditioners to Casey. Jenn McGhee, a plant operator from South Australia, is one of ten women on station.
Staring out from the walls is the old guard of expeditions past - the once exclusively male club of winterer’s. They’d endure a year down here living in little more than plywood sheds. Jenn McGhee’s father was a winterer in 1961 and it was his tales of adventure that brought her here.
JENN MCGHEE: [Looking at photograph] “He still looks the same…. chubby cheeks and a bit cheeky. That’s him there.”
CORCORAN: “So what does he think about you being here today?”
JENN MCGHEE: “Absolutely blown away. Pretty excited and really happy that I could share some of the similar experiences that he had down here.”
CORCORAN: “Yeah. Any worries or concerns of his daughter coming down to this environment?”
JENN MCGHEE: “No, not for his best boy, no. He had four daughters my dad, so I’m probably the closest thing to a son as far as adventuring and travelling and just getting amongst it. So yeah, he’s pretty happy.”
CORCORAN: Inside the living quarters, with its ski lodge ambience, life is extremely comfortable. There’s a get together once a week, plenty of food, free beer and good company. But one topic appears to be off the limits of polite conversation, the sensitive issue of Antarctic politics.
“Australia claims 42% of all Antarctica as Australian territory. But under the terms of the 1961 Antarctic Treaty, the whole continent has been declared a kind of international zone, devoted to science and peace, where the military and mining are banned. But spend a bit of time here at Casey and you come away with the feeling that sovereignty is every bit as important as science. Under the terms of the Treaty no other country needs to ask Australian permission to set up a base here, as the Italians, French, Russians and others have done - and they’re all now closely watching the rapid emergence of another player on the ice, China.”
Enter the Snow Dragon, Chinese expeditioners from the research ship Xue Long. There’s a long tradition of scientific co-operation in the Antarctic, even during the height of the Cold War, enemies left their disputes behind as they set foot on the ice.
The Chinese have just launched a huge inland expedition to build a base, China’s 3rd, at a location called Dome A. At 4,200 metres it’s the highest, coldest point in Australian Antarctic Territory. This epic trek is big news back home on State TV.
CHINESE MAN LEADING TEAM: “We sacrifice our lives to the Antarctic project!”
CORCORAN: China doesn’t recognise Australia’s claim and didn’t seek Canberra’s permission to be here, 2000 kilometres inland from Casey. Their mission is far more ambitious than anything Australia has attempted.
As expedition leader, Professor Hui Gen Yang and his entourage tour Casey. Every structure and piece of equipment is methodically photographed.
The Chinese acknowledge they’ve gained much from Australia’s century of experience here. They receive a warm welcome in the bar, and a taste of Casey’s social life.
Professor Yang is surprised to meet the ICECAP team. He confirms that China is also racing to be the first to secure a million year old ice core.
PROFESSOR HUI GEN YANG: [Chinese Expedition Leader] “At Dome A we are trying to drill the ice core to the bottom to recover the climate change for about one million years.”
CORCORAN: You think you’ll find one million years?”
PROFESSOR HUI GEN YANG: “Yes…. no… we hope. We hope.”
CORCORAN: Despite the tradition of international cooperation, you get the sense that there hasn’t been too much sharing of notes over the ICECAP project.
PROFESSOR HUI GEN YANG: “I’m very surprised. I didn’t realise that you are doing…”.
CORCORAN: “Some friendly competition.”
PROFESSOR HUI GEN YANG: “Yeah, yeah, yeah and I think we can find opportunity to collaborate.”
CORCORAN: But ICECAP’s Jack Holt is sceptical of China’s motives in choosing the Dome A site.
“Are they setting up in the right place?”
DR JACK HOLT: “Well we’ll see I guess in a few years but we actually think that this area that we are studying, the Aurora Basin is more likely to contain an old ice record you know going back to a million years than up in the mountains you know that are beneath the Dome A up there where they are studying.”
CORCORAN: “Why do you think they’ve gone for that spot?”
DR JACK HOLT: “Well I think there’s, it’s a little appealing you know in some ways to go to the very highest, coldest point in Antarctica and establish a base so I think that might be part of their motivation.”
CORCORAN: “Yeah a bit beyond science perhaps.”
DR JACK HOLT: “Yeah and you know you can hardly blame them. That’s happened before. I mean the South Pole station is really not there because of the science. It’s because it’s the South Pole.
CORCORAN: “And that’s an American base.”
DR JACK HOLT: “And that’s an American base so you know it’s a matter of presence and a signal to others to say yes, we’re here, it’s difficult, we made it.”
CORCORAN: The Chinese and Americans may not be the only ones mixing science and international interest.
DR EDI ALBERT: “It’s an amazing place and the opportunity to live and work here is a tremendous one.”
CORCORAN: For station doctor, Edi Albert, the Antarctic provides the opportunity to combine medicine with his passion for the outdoors. While mission leaders here naturally enough have to measure their language, Edi Albert feels under no such constraint. He spells out the growing chasm between Australia’s official aims and what he sees as the real agenda.
DR EDI ALBERT: “Why are we down here I suppose is what you’re asking isn’t it? I don’t rightly know. I mean are the American’s interested in being here? Why all of a sudden are we finding other nations, you know Italy, France, China, suddenly you know contributing millions of dollars in equivalent to building new stations and the answer here isn’t, it can’t just be science can it?”
CORCORAN: “What is the answer?”
DR EDI ALBERT: “I think what most people who’ve been you know in and out of the Antarctic division or their equivalents are fairly convinced that it’s about minerals.”
CORCORAN: Australia was instrumental in ensuring that mining was banned under the Antarctic Treaty but what may ultimately save the continent from exploitation is the sheer inaccessibility of the coal and iron ore buried deep beneath the ice.
GRAHAM COOK: “I think the Treaty is fairly safe at the moment. The resources are left alone because of the difficulties of getting to them and I’m not that sure of what is available. I think that the Treaty’s fairly strong and hopefully will stay put for a long time.”
CORCORAN: However just beyond Casey, not far from where the Chinese research ship Xue Long lies anchored, there’s a far more accessible resource beneath the seabed – oil.
DR MARTIN RIDDLE: The sovereignty questions are large set aside at the moment. Who knows what will happen if the pressure on resources, mineral resources and oil exploration or oil resources increases into the future? When I joined the Antarctic program in 1994 the chief scientist at the time use to joke that it would not be cost effective to take oil from the Antarctic unless oil was $65 a barrel. And he said that with a smile on his face because it would never be possible that it would be that expensive and of course we’ve seen it much more expensive than that.”
CORCORAN: Back out at the Wilkins runway, the Australian Airbus has just delivered a group of Chinese VIPs, here to officially open China’s new base over at Dome A.
DR MARTIN RIDDLE: “China and India are probably the future of Antarctic research. They are going to have the resources in 20 years time… 30 years time. Australia should be building relationships with them. We’ve got very good relationships.
CORCORAN: China is the world’s largest emitter of the man-made CO2 gases now threatening Antarctica’s very existence. So Beijing’s engagement here is encouraged, up to a point. Behind the welcoming smiles though, there’s disillusionment that Australia is being left behind.
GRAHAM COOK: “I think that the Government really needs to look at what we’re doing down here and decide what it is, what we want to do down here, and fund it appropriately.”
DR MARTIN RIDDLE: “So it really requires people with great foresight and commitment and dedication to commit the resources to position ourselves to deal with the future that we know is coming to us.”
CORCORAN: “The implication is that we don't get that at the moment.”
DR MARTIN RIDDLE: “That is the implication, yes.”
DR EDI ALBERT: “Why is Australia here? Is this about sovereignty? Is this about muscle flexing in the international community? Is this about mineral resources in 10 years time? Is it genuinely about science looking at climate change and trying to make things better for the future? I don’t see any honesty from above about what we’re actually doing here.”