Researchers will turn their eyes to the low-level clouds that form over Antarctica this summer, with the help of state-of-the-art equipment provided by the US Department of Energy.
The equipment, worth $14 million, will allow atmospheric scientists to better understand the “super-cooled” clouds that form over the Southern Ocean.
Along with 105 expeditioners the equipment — weighing seven tonnes — is being taken to Davis Station on the icebreaker Aurora Australia’s first voyage of the season.
“Clouds are one of the biggest uncertainties in the Earth’s climate system and the area where there’s most uncertainty is the Southern Ocean,” atmospheric scientist Simon Alexander said.
“We have satellites to look down on the clouds from space but it’s very difficult for the satellite to see low-level cloud.
“In the Southern Ocean most of the cloud is low-level, so we need to look up at them from the surface.”
To that end, a US research plane will join the project in January and February, flying through the clouds to take measurements from above.
“At the same time we’ll be taking measurements from the ship and from Macquarie Island, so we’ll get a complete understanding of these clouds,” Dr Alexander said.
The data will help improve climate modelling and ultimately weather forecasting in southern Australia.
The ship’s deck was reinforced and the equipment bolted on to withstand the ferocious conditions often found in the Southern Ocean.
About 500 expeditioners will travel to Antarctica this summer, with a handful staying on over winter.
Australian Antarctic Division’s Acting Director Charlton Clark said this year there were 92 projects planned, including ice core sampling 300 kilometres south of Davis Station, and another looking at the breeding and feeding patterns of Adelie penguins.
The Aurora Australis will make four trips south this summer, resupplying Casey and Mawson stations and retrieving summer expeditioners.
The French ship L’Astrolabe is taking expeditioners to Macquarie Island.
“That’s typical of the cooperation between a number of countries in Antarctica,” Mr Clark said.
Australia and French ships dock in Hobart
L’Astrolabe is crewed by the French Navy and is briefly docked in Hobart before it sets sail on a resupply mission to France’s main Antarctic station – Dumont d’Urville in Adelie Land.
Commander Céline Tuccelli said it was the first time in 70 years the French Navy would have a vessel sailing in the Antarctic.
“The particular mission here is to work for the French Polar Institute, and be part of the logistic chain to deliver the French station in Antarctica,” she said.
“It’s very much exciting, it’s a challenge, and we are all trained to do our best.”
Head of Logistics at the French Polar Instittute, Patrice Bretel is coordinating the French Antarctic efforts.
“There are many different parts with different ways of transferring equipment, transferring people, organising all the different steps with the L’Astrolabe through Hobart,” he said.
“We have a lot of work before the season to organise and to prepare the time schedule … but for us the main challenge is to refuel the station, because of the sea ice conditions of the last years, we couldn’t provide all the fuel we wanted.
“Our main challenge this year is to refuel especially the station Concordia.”