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Antarctica: Where the rough gets tough

A new RT540E Grove rough terrain crane was recently transported to Antarctica for use in loading and unloading cargo and containers for resupply at Davis station, one of the research stations in the Australian Antarctic Program.

The Australian Antarctic Program conducts world-class science of critical national importance and global significance that delivers on Australian Antarctic policy and operational priorities. The Program is led, coordinated and delivered by the Australian Antarctic Division.

The Grove RT540E, manufactured out of Manitowoc Cranes’ Niella Tanaro facility in Italy, joined another Grove RT530E-2 rough terrain crane, at Davis. These cranes were installed with the “Arctic Package” which includes low viscosity synthetic oils and 240 volt heaters on the engine, batteries and hydraulic tanks. This installation was carried out locally in Australia.

The cranes are normally operated over summer when the conditions are more favourable. The cranes are typically operated down to minus -20°C. The main issue is the cranes are stored outside so snow ingress into the boom and cabins can be a problem. If not melted out properly, there can be issues with boom extensions and retraction ropes being frozen in an ice block, so melting the snow out of them, after winter, is important. Damage from the wind can also be an issue.

The cranes are maintained in station workshops and returned to Australia every 10 years for replacement or a major inspection. They are maintained on site by diesel mechanics as per the manufacturer’s instructions.

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The Australian Antarctic Division maintains four permanent research stations. Mawson, Davis and Casey on the Antarctic continent, and Macquarie Island is in the sub-Antarctic. All four stations are occupied year-round by scientists and support staff.

The Division also manages other significant areas in the Australian Antarctic Territory, such as Heard Island and McDonald Islands, Commonwealth Bay and a weather station at Dome A, the highest point in Antarctica.

Australian Antarctic Program climate research investigates the role of Antarctica and the Southern Ocean in the global climate system, building on more than 50 years of climate research in the region.

The main focus of the research is to address uncertainties identified in the Fourth Assessment Report (2007) of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). This report highlighted the lack of climate data from the Southern Ocean, the sea ice zone and Antarctica in general. It also noted a need for greater understanding of the role the region may have in slowing the rate of climate change and of the future behaviour of the ice sheet and its contribution to sea level rise.

Davis is the most southerly Australian Antarctic station and is situated 2250 nautical miles south-south-west of Perth, on the Ingrid Christensen Coast of Princess Elizabeth Land.

Davis research station supports a range of scientific research on climate, weather, ecosystems ice and animals.

Wildlife is abundant around Davis station providing many opportunities for scientists to study the Antarctic ecology and environment. Various types of seals can be found near the station including Elephant and Leopard as well a number of types of penguins. One of the most popular and easily identifiable are Emperor penguins.

Emperor penguins are unique birds, not only do they survive the Antarctic winter, but they breed during the worst weather conditions on Earth.

The emperor is the largest of the 18 penguin species. Adults can weigh up to 40kg at the start of the breeding season. Historically, there were some penguin species even larger than emperors, weighing perhaps 100kg! These mega-penguins became extinct several tens of thousands of years ago.

Emperors have excellent insulation in the form of several layers of scale-like feathers; it takes very strong winds (over 60 knots or about 110km/h) to get them ruffled. In proportion to their overall size, they have small bills and flippers to conserve heat. They are also very social creatures, and one of their survival mechanisms is to huddle together to keep warm. This huddling instinct means that they do not defend any territory.

Emperor penguins have to face freezing conditions including katabatic winds that blow off the polar plateau and intensify the cold. Emperor colonies also face blizzards of up to 200km/h. To keep warm, the males close ranks to share their warmth. When carrying their incubation fat, emperors are about as large around the chest as an average man. On a functional level, huddling cuts the heat loss by as much as 50 per cent, and enables males to survive the long incubation fast. The warmer they are, the longer their fat lasts. The temperature inside a huddle can be as high as +24°C.

In the summer, about 100 expeditioners call Davis station home, while in the winter that number drops to about 20. Australian Antarctica expeditioners spend 6 to 18 months on the ice, depending on their role. There are also other fly-in fly-out roles where scientists may only spend a few weeks on the ice undertaking their work.

The average annual temperature ranges from about −10°C on the Antarctic coast to −60°C at the highest parts of the interior. Near the coast the temperature can exceed +10°C at times in summer and fall to below −40°C in winter.

Over the elevated inland, it can rise to about −30°C in summer but fall below −80°C in winter. The lowest temperature yet recorded on the Earth’s surface was −89.2°C at Vostok station on 21 July 1983.

On Antarctica’s coast, where the stations are located, there are usually a couple of weeks in mid-winter (around 21 June) when the sun does not rise, and a couple of weeks in summer around Christmas when there is 24-hour sunlight.

The polar circles (both the Antarctic Circle at 66°34° S and Arctic Circle at 66°34° N) mark the latitude beyond which the sun remains completely below the horizon throughout the day on Midwinter’s Day and completely above the horizon on Midsummer’s Day. As you move closer to the poles, the periods of winter darkness and summer daylight increase.

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