Sunrise over plane on tarmac. Corcoran boards plane




CORCORAN: Our Antarctic expedition sets forth from Hobart, not in an icebreaker but aboard an airliner.


Sunrise over wing

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.


Inside cockpit

Our destination appears as a distant slash on the ice.


Airbus lands

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.


Passengers disembark

This is no place to linger and the ground crew swiftly load passengers and cargo for the home leg.


Into snow vehicle




CORCORAN: 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.


Antarctic Circle sign




Casey station

CORCORAN: Casey’s one of three 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.


Corcoran walks with Cook

This is station leader Graham Cook’s third year long stint down here and he says the long periods of isolation are now history.

COOK: In the past we had people come down on the ship and they were here for the whole of the summer


Cook. Super:
Casey Station leader

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.


Visitors prepare for survival training

CORCORAN: On arrival everyone, us included, is kitted up for 24 hours survival training.


Martin conducts 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.


Visitors set off

CORCORAN: With 80 kilometre an hour gusts and a 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’.



Corcoran with Martin and group

CORCORAN:  So this is a fairly typical summer’s day in the Antarctic?

MARTIN BENAVENTE: Reasonably, yeah reasonably.


Group on snow

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


Martin addresses group

full white-out or blizzard, in as little as about twenty minutes at Casey Station.


Sunset over ice

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.


Spinning prop of DC3

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.



Holt inspects aircraft

American glaciologist Jack Holt is part scientist, part explorer.

HOLT: This part of the Antarctic ice sheet has been largely unexplored


Holt. Super:
Glaciologist, University of Texas

and so this international program is the big first effort to understand what’s beneath the surface.


Engines start

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.


Plane takes off

CORCORAN: The ICECAP team takes off in the half light of midnight, when interference from the earth’s magnetic field is lowest.


Aerials. Ice cliffs




CORCORAN: Fifty 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, its catchment - the area where all of the snow and the ice accumulates and drains into it - is thousands of kilometres across.



Computer in plane/Plane

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.





Scientists in plane

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.


Aerial. Glacier/ Scientists in plane

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 Texas. 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.


Plane low over 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 to 70 metres, so if it changes just a tiny fraction, you could see significant increases in sea level.


Zodiac across water




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.



CORCORAN:  Why is the Antarctic so important to climate change research?

DR MARTIN RIDDLE: For a number of reasons actually.


Riddle. Super:
Australian Antarctic Division

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 any more.



CORCORAN:  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.


Riddle on Zodiac




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,


Riddle. Super:
Australian Antarctic Division

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,


Seal on ice

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.





Time-lapse. Casey station




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.





People at Casey

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 under funded 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.


Jenn drives crane

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.


Group B/W photos from the ‘50s early ‘60s



Jenn and Corcoran look at photos of previous expeditions

CORCORAN: Staring out from the walls is the old guard of expeditions past - the once exclusively male club of winterers. They’d endure a year down here living in little more than plywood sheds.



Photo. Jenn’s father

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


Jenn and Corcoran by photos

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 Expeditioner

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.


Expeditioners relax at Casey station bar




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.



Shots around station

Despite the extreme isolation here, politics is never far away. 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  all are now closely watching the rapid emergence of another player on the ice, China.


Montage Chinese boat/choppers




CORCORAN:  Enter the Snow Dragon, Chinese expeditioners from the research ship Xue Long.


Chinese expeditioners land

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.


Xue Long

The Xue Long is the headquarters ship for a huge expedition to build a base, China’s third, at a location called Dome A. At 4,200 metres it’s the highest, coldest point in Australian Antarctic Territory.




China doesn’t recognise Australia’s claim and didn’t seek Canberra’s permission to be here. The Chinese expedition is bigger and far more ambitious than anything Australia has attempted.


Prof Yang walks with Graham Cook

As expedition leader, every structure and piece of equipment is methodically photographed.


Australian team welcome Chinese

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.


Prof Yang visits ICECAP lab

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.


Chinese Expedition Leader

PROF YANG:  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?

PROF YANG: Yes…. no… we hope. We hope.


Looking at map

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.

PROF YANG: I’m very surprised. I didn’t realise that you are doing…


Prof Yang at ICECAP lab

CORCORAN: Some friendly competition.

PROF YANG:  Yeah, yeah, yeah and I think we can find opportunity to collaborate.


Holt and Corcoran by DC3

CORCORAN: But ICECAP’s Jack Holt is sceptical of China’s motives in choosing the Dome A site.



CORCORAN:  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 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 HOLTGlaciologist, University of Texas

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


Cross country skiers

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.


Edi skiing

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?


Expedition doctor:

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.



Sunset on ice




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.



 COOK:  I think the Treaty is fairly safe at the moment.


Casey Station Leader

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


Aerial. Xue Long

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.



Australian Antarctic Division

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.


Airbus lands



Chinese visitors 

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.


Chinese expeditioner greets visitor

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.


Driving across ice




CORCORAN: The northern hemisphere’s ice meltdown is already altering the political dynamic of the Arctic border states of Russia, Canada and the US. Down there, the Antarctic Treaty still keeps national ambitions in check but for how long? Can Australia still credibly lay claim to 42% of this continent if its once dominant presence is seen to be melting away?


Expeditioner attempts to raise Australian flag

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?


Edi Albert

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.


Australian flag flies




Reporter : Mark Corcoran

Camera:  Peter Curtis

Research: Bronwen Reed

Editor:  Garth Thomas



© 2019 Journeyman Pictures
Journeyman Pictures Ltd. 4-6 High Street, Thames Ditton, Surrey, KT7 0RY, United Kingdom

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