Living through Antarctic snowstorms, Australian scientists are undertaking some of the ‘most ambitious’ research

In a whitewashed corner of one of the world’s coldest continents, 27 Australian scientists are living in tents and working to solve 500 years of climate clues.

The Denman Terrestrial Campaign is a three-year research project based at Edgeworth David Base in East Antarctica’s Bunger Hills, 450 kilometres from Australia’s Casey Research Station.

According to the Australian Antarctic Division (AAD), the research into the Denman Glacier Region is the most ambitious deep-field camp the AAD has coordinated in 20 years.

“We had previously thought that East Antarctica was largely immune to the effects of climate change, but as we’ve started to gather information, we’ve seen that the Denman Glacier is actually a part of East Antarctica that’s losing ice,” climate scientist Professor Nerilie Abram says.

“[It] potentially has a very vulnerable set up, as the ocean and the atmosphere begin to warm.”

The researchers are drilling up to 200 metres into ice to collect ice chip samples that are sent back to Australia for analysis.(Supplied: Australian Antarctic Division)

Professor Abram says the team of scientists are “particularly concerned” about the glacier “as the climate begins to warm”.

“We really don’t know very much about how rapidly this region will lose ice,” she says.

Professor Nerilie Abram says the key to working in Antarctica is being adaptable to weather changes.(Supplied: Australian Antarctic Division)

The base of the glacier, almost 100km from the main camp at the Bunga Hills, is where researchers can drill up to 200 metres into the ice and collect ice chip samples to send back to Australia where they will be used to re-construct 500 years of climate history.

The glacier has retreated 5km in recent decades and scientists are working to figure out whether that change is unusual, or part of its natural advance and retreat.

Living in tents through Antarctic snowstorms, 27 Australian scientists are working to solve 500 years of climate clues.(Supplied: Australian Antarctic Division)

“[We want to] understand how it varies naturally, but also, what are the changes happening now? How unusual is the climate here? And how quickly is it changing?” Professor Abram says.

“We’ve also got teams trying to understand the biology of the area because there’s a lot that we just don’t know about this part of Antarctica.”

The plane taking the scientists to their base camp has to land on a sheet of ice.(Supplied: Australian Antarctic Division)

The team of 27 includes researchers, a chef, a doctor and two helicopter pilots, who have been living in tents through snowstorms since December 2023.

“The key word for working in Antarctica is ‘adaptability’,” Professor Abram says.

“We have to be adaptable to whatever weather we get, we have to be able to fix whatever technical problems we have with the limited resources we have on hand.”

The research project is currently in its second of three years.

Professor Nerilie Abram says there’s a lot we don’t know about this eastern part of Antarctica.(Supplied: Australian Antarctic Division)

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