Iceberg floating in the sea.

Antarctica is a beautiful but tough place to conduct scientific research.

Image: Tanya Patrick/CSIRO Education

Sunday 8 January 2012 marked the 100th Anniversary of Douglas Mawson’s expedition arriving in Antarctica. This was the first of many research expeditions Australia would undertake to the frozen continent.

There are no cities or towns in Antarctica. However there are research stations, of which Australia has four. The scientists who stay in them conduct research in fields as diverse as zoology, geophysics, medicine and climate change. Unfortunately for them, they have to endure one of the most extreme environments on Earth. At the same time that mainland Australia is sweltering during summer, temperatures rarely creep above 0°C in Antarctica.

The continent may be covered in ice but it rarely snows in Antarctica. The low precipitation means it is classified as a desert.

Not only is Antarctica the driest place on Earth, it is also the windiest. Intense winds called katabatic winds blow from the inland out to the sea. Cape Denison, where Mawson set up his first base, is recognised as the windiest place on the planet.

While today’s researchers have the benefits of modern technology to make life more bearable, spare a thought for Mawson and his men. They lived in wooden huts and used wooden sledges pulled by dogs to explore.

Australia has played a key role in protecting Antarctica’s unique environment through the implementation of the Antarctic Treaty and the Madrid Protocol. These agreements are designed to ensure that Antarctica is not exploited, and used only for peaceful research activities. In particular, the Madrid Protocol placed a ban on mining activity in Antarctica.

Antarctica is unlike any other continent. Through ongoing research and the recognition of its universal value, this beautiful place will hopefully continue to be preserved.

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