20 m
0
Ocean depth in metres
4,600 m

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Chapter 1 Ice nomads

Imagine travelling 10 hours a day for two weeks, at a top speed of 10 kilometres per hour, across the featureless, white Antarctic icecap.

This will be the reality for a team of expeditioners involved in the first mission of the Australian Antarctic Division’s new ‘tractor traverse’.

The traverse will deliver a ‘mobile inland station’ – fuel, food, scientific equipment and infrastructure – to a remote ice core drilling site, 1200 kilometres inland from Casey research station.

Scroll down to follow the journey, or navigate through the story chapters with the menu on the right.

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The tractor traverse will allow the Australian Antarctic Program to move inland in all weather conditions, and reach areas not usually accessible by aircraft.

The first expedition will be to support scientists drilling an ice core with a climate history dating back more than one million years, at Little Dome C, high on the Antarctic plateau.

This ice core will provide a window into a time when there was a major shift in the Earth’s climate system.

Information trapped in tiny air bubbles in the ice harbours clues about what caused this shift, which will help scientists better understand climate change now and into the future.

Scroll down for an animation about this ambitious mission, and a video on its scientific importance.

To drill an ice core with more than a million years of climate history, a skilled team of scientists, engineers and technicians have been designing, fabricating and testing components for an ice core drill system, in the Australian Antarctic Division’s workshops.

Australia is part of an international ice drilling community that shares drill designs and techniques, and the drill is based on American drawings of a Danish design, modified to suit Australian scientists’ needs and the likely operating conditions at Little Dome C.

As the drill will run for months at a time, up to 3000 metres deep, and in temperatures as low as −55°C, reliability and precision in its operation are key.

This will allow scientists to recover high quality ice cores day after day, and likely reach the bottom of Antarctic ice sheet over a four-to-five year period.

The final drill will be nine metres long and made of specialised stainless steel, aluminium, bronze and titanium.

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Chapter 2 Traversing history

Australia is no stranger to travelling deep into Antarctica, for science.

Since Douglas Mawson’s Australasian Antarctic Expedition (1911–14), Australia has used a variety of towing and support vehicles to explore the Antarctic interior – from man-hauling sledges, to huskies, and a variety of tracked vehicles.

Scroll down to check out some of the highlights of Australia’s Antarctic traverse history.

Heroic Era

1911–14

The Australasian Antarctic Expedition (AAE) of 1911–14 established Australia’s first base on the Antarctic continent, at Cape Denison.

Expedition leader Douglas Mawson organised several teams to fan out and explore the ‘Australian Quadrant’ – travelling south towards the magnetic pole, the eastern coastline and the western plateau.

Prince Charles Mountains

1950s

The Australian National Antarctic Research Expeditions (ANARE) was established in 1947 to set up research stations on sub-Antarctic Heard and Macquarie islands and continental Antarctica.

Australia’s first Antarctic station, Mawson, was established in 1954, and enabled Australia to extend its exploration and research activities to the inland ice sheet.

Vostok

1962

In the spring and summer of 1962, ANARE undertook an epic 3000 kilometre, four-month traverse from Wilkes to the Russian station, Vostok.

The results from the traverse provided surface elevation and ice thickness data over a 1200 kilometre line inland, and confirmed an ice thickness of over 4500 metres, about 600 kilometres inland.

Amery Ice Shelf

1968

The 1968 Amery Ice Shelf expedition was one of the most productive and successful field programs undertaken over winter by a small group of isolated expeditioners – despite having their camp site buried beneath snow.

The four-man team was landed by ship on the edge of the ice shelf, with 70 tonnes of equipment and supplies.

These were hauled by tracked vehicles and aircraft 100 kilometres to the wintering site, where a base camp for ice core drilling was set up.

See more in the video.

Wilkes Land and Law Dome

1960s–1990s

In the early 1960s Australia undertook a range of traverses inland from Wilkes (and later Casey) to study ice flow and snow accumulation.

Over the years, repeat measurements along this route provided one of the most comprehensive data sets on the changes in accumulation rate from the coast to the high interior of the ice sheet.

Lambert Glacier

1990s

The Lambert Glacier basin drains 1.5 million square kilometres of the Antarctic ice sheet, via the Lambert Glacier and the Amery Ice Shelf.

Over five summers between 1989 and 1995, long oversnow traverses were undertaken around the basin to study ice-sheet characteristics, dynamics and ‘mass budget’ (the input and output of snow and ice).

PCMEGA

2002

Between 2002 and 2003, one of the last long traverses conducted by the now ‘Australian Antarctic Program’ was the Prince Charles Mountains Expedition of Germany and Australia (PCMEGA).

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Chapter 3 Modern fleet

Australia’s new 21st century traverse fleet consists of six tractors, each able to tow 80 tonnes, with three snow groomers to smooth the icy path ahead.

The combined 2600 horsepower tractors will tow an entire mobile research station deep inland, with food supplies, accommodation, scientific facilities, power generation and up to 180,000 litres of Jet A1 fuel – for the traverse, inland station and ice drilling operations.

The Caterpillar Challenger tractors were modified for Antarctic conditions, with heaters added in the transmissions and engines, double-glazing of the cabs, and the engine cowlings closed off to reduce the impact of blizzards.

They were then given a colourful facelift with iconic designs by Australian artist Ken Done.

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Chapter 4 Building blocks

The combined weight of the traverse infrastructure and mobile inland station will be 400–500 tonnes.

Twenty-eight flat-deck sleds will carry the load, with up to six sleds per tractor.

Five sleds will carry 40 foot ‘vans’ – a living van (pictured) and a sleeping van for the 10-person traverse team, and three sleeping vans for the 16 inland station personnel.

These specially designed vans are wider than shipping containers, providing a more comfortable experience.

The traverse living van includes a kitchen and mess area, shower, toilet and laundry facilities.

Generators provide all the lighting and heating, while a snow melter outside the van holds up to 500 litres of water.

The remaining 10 and 20 foot sleds will carry vans and shipping containers housing the medical facility, refrigerated and frozen food, generators, tents, small vehicles, waste, the ice core drill and ice core store, and other scientific equipment and cargo.

The sleds will also carry specially designed ‘ISO-tanks’, each carrying 10,000 litres of fuel.

In the first year of traverse operation the inland station infrastructure will be delivered to the Little Dome C drill site and set up.

In subsequent years the traverse will predominantly resupply the inland station (which will remain on site over winter) with food and fuel.

Scroll down to see our traverse expert Anthony Hull explain more in two videos with LEGO models.

During summer the traverse will travel up to 100 kilometres per day in temperatures ranging from about −20°C at the coast to −50°C closer to the Little Dome C summit.

At the end of each day, a snow groomer will prepare an area for the tractors to park and then the vehicles will be refuelled and plugged in to the generators to keep their engine blocks warm overnight.

Scroll down for another video with traverse expert Anthony Hull and his LEGO models.

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Chapter 5 Fast food

At the end of ach traverse day the team will retreat to the living van to eat and relax.

Australian Antarctic Division station support officer Noel Tennant, has the important job of organising the supply of traverse food.

This includes ready-made meals sourced from an Australian manufacturer, as well as a range of staples, condiments and additional extras to allow the team to cook for themselves or supplement their meals as needed.

“We’ve focussed on making it as easy as possible for the team, as they will have limited time to prepare their own meals,” Mr Tennant said.

“We’ve got pre-packaged meals that simply need to be reheated, as well as foods they can take back to their tractor if they run out of time, and plenty of snacks.”

“But they will also be able to make their own bread and yoghurt, or cook up some bacon, eggs and pancakes.”

“We want the team to feel that meal times are not just about putting fuel in their bodies.”

“We’re providing foods that are tasty, filling and fairly practical, and something to look forward to.”

Importantly, the food is over-catered.

“We know from experience that the traverse team will be hungry and will consume more than average,” Mr Tennant said.

"We also factor in delays due to weather or a mechanical breakdown, so that there’s no risk of food running out.”

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Chapter 6 Van life

“For some, traversing can be an ordeal that they would sooner forget; for others it can be a special experience that presents many challenges and gives them the opportunity to see some of the most wonderful sights imaginable”… Jim Dragisic, team leader of the 2002–03 Prince Charles Mountains Expedition of Germany and Australia traverse.

Scroll down for video: Australian Antarctic Division glaciologist Dr Tas van Ommen describes his experiences during a 15 day, 1354 kilometre French traverse, from Cape Prud’homme to Aurora Basin North on the Antarctic Plateau, in 2013–14.

The first traverse in support of the Million Year Ice Core project will begin delivering infrastructure for the mobile inland station in 2022.

Credits:

Thanks to the Institut Polair Français (IPEV) for some of the traverse vision and stills used in chapters 1, 3 & 6.