Sailing into an icy cauldron
Reuters employee Pauline Askin has sailed for the Antarctic for a six -week expedition on the icy continent where she will help restore Mawson’s huts named after Australia’s most celebrated Antarctic explorer on Commonwealth Bay, the windiest place on earth.
During the expedition, Pauline will report on topics ranging from climate change and the environment to tourism and Christmas celebrations in Antarctica.
You can follow Pauline’s experiences in one of the harshest environments on Earth in this blog.
Ominously the storm clouds arrived to farewell us from Hobart, Tasmania, on our Antarctic expedition to restore Sir Douglas Mawson’s Huts, which have clung precariously to the ice of Commonwealth Bay for 98 years. For the next five days our ship, the French ice breaker l’Astrolabe, will be tossed like a cork as the Roaring Forties turns the Southern Ocean into an icy cauldron.
Waves around six metres (18 feet), but probably bigger, will batter our ship. We’ve been told we will most likely be confined to our bunks for the first few days and have been prescribed a drug used to prevent motion sickness and which is sometimes used to sedate upset children.
I am Irish and my father used to fish off Dublin, so I know the power of the sea, but I’m not sure whether my sea legs will be cut from under me on this trip. Many a veteran sailor has been broken by the Southern Ocean. But once we reach the eerie ice zone which surrounds the Antarctic, the floating ice will settle the seas.
You can track the ship here.
Although it is the Antarctic summer it is nice to be sailing in an ice breaker, although at 949 tonnes it is one of the smallest research ships working in Antarctic waters. It could take up to 10 days to reach Cape Denison in East Antarctica and Commonwealth Bay.
It has taken months to get to this stage. We have all undergone not only physical examinations, but also psychological testings, to ensure we can handle the isolation and claustrophobia of 10 people, six men and four women, living and working in a couple of huts and tents for nearly two months.
We’ve loaded seven tonnes of equipment, including 20 boxes of frozen and fresh food. Once the l’Astrolabe drops us on the ice it leaves for the French Antarctic base Dumont d’Urville, and will not return until the end of the expedition.
There is expected to be a visit from a tourist cruise ship, but apart from that we will be alone on Commonwealth Bay, the windiest coast on earth. The ferocious katabatic winds, which tear down the ice ridges, battering Mawson’s Huts and clearing ice from Commonwealth Bay, blew for 143 kmh (90 mph) for 12 hours in 1913.
Antarctic explorer Mawson established his base on the shores of the bay because the lack of ice suggested a sheltered spot. The katabatic winds almost killed him and his expedition and have been destroying his huts ever since.
Large Antarctic icebergs have been spotted floating north past Macquarie Island in the Southern Ocean in recent weeks as global warming melts the ice continent. Normally, we would lay anchor in Commonwealth Bay and helicopter into Mawson’s Huts, but with Antarctic ice floating further north than usual, we may have to helicopter the last 100 kms (62 miles).
We have undergone survival training. Having a bar of chocolate stored in your pocket is one tip for surviving a snow blizard until you are found. Lucky I like chocolate.
I am one of three first-time Antarctic expeditioners. My role will be to help restore the huts of Australia’s most celebrated Antarctic explorers, but I will also be filing on daily life on the ice continent and topics ranging from climate change and the environment to tourism and Christmas and New Year celebrations in Antarctica.