Louise Carroll hiking through the Vestfold Hills, behind Davis Station. Credit: Jamie McGaw
To the average person the icy continent of Antarctica conjures up images of wild and windy weather in one of the most remote and inhospitable places on the planet. Images are conjured up of Sir Douglas Mawson sledging through the timeless lands of East Antarctica, and of Scott and Amundsen racing to be the first to reach the elusive South Pole. And growing up in suburban Sydney in the 1980s, I was no different. Back then, I could never have imagined that I would be one of the fortunate few to not only visit, but to work multiple times on the icy continent, doing a job that brought me joy; to walk in the footsteps of those great explorers who forged the path ahead of me. Over the years, my connection to Antarctica has grown both through my experiences working as a meteorologist, and the shared experiences of community on station. Over the past eleven years, I have been fortunate to have been part of two summer expeditions to Davis, one summer expedition to Casey, and a twelve-month expedition to Macquarie Island. I am also planning to return to the continent this coming summer.
Growing up, I never had any specific desire to see Antarctica, despite there being an emerging love of travel and adventure in my life. By the age of 16 I was travelling Australia solo, and shortly after that, I started to travel abroad solo. So looking back, it seems a little strange that I wasn’t drawn to Antarctica when I was younger. Perhaps there was this underlying assumption that Antarctica was off limits to all but the most hardened and extreme adventurers. Or simply that I didn’t have the cash to even be able to afford such an adventure.
Louise Carroll near Davis Station with a Weddell seal. Credit: Supplied.
As my love for travel and adventure began to flourish in my teenage years, my passion for weather and climate also developed from a young age. I loved to watch the smallest of cumulus clouds grow to an impressive size during a hot and humid summers’ day in Sydney. Then to see nature unleash its energy in a commanding way through a lightning and thunder show in the evening, sometimes producing hail to the size of golf balls, or larger.
Nature’s fury was so strong at times that it would bring down trees and power lines, leaving us without power, sometimes for days at a time. I found this energy awe-inspiring and knew I had to fulfil this curiosity by choosing a path of study in meteorology.
My first real exposure to polar meteorology came through my university studies. Along with tropical and mid-latitude meteorology, polar meteorology was an entity of study within itself. Unlike anywhere else on the planet, Antarctic meteorology is governed by low pressure systems that circle the Antarctic continent aligning with what is known as the circumpolar trough, coupled with the strong katabatic winds that flow off the continent as a result of the permanent high pressure system that straddles the South Pole. It is along the Antarctic coast (where all the Australian Antarctic stations are located) where there is an interplay between these two forces resulting in the most dynamic of all Antarctic weather.
Back during my university days in the early 2000s, climate change (or the “enhanced greenhouse effect” as it was commonly referred to back then) was largely understood and debated within the scientific community, but was still not commonplace in the national conversation, and certainly wasn’t a political issue. Back then, this understanding of the fragility of our planet, human activity’s influence over climate, and the vital role Antarctica plays within this system is what truly sparked my interest in the icy continent. So naturally when the opportunity to apply to work as a meteorologist in Antarctica arose back in 2011, I eagerly submitted my application and before I knew it, I was undertaking specialist Antarctic meteorologist training in Hobart and was boarding the Aurora Australis and on my way to Davis Station.
The role of an Antarctic meteorologist embedded within the Australian Antarctic Program is an incredibly busy one, from providing forecasting support for station activities, field parties, station marine operations and resupply voyages, through to any aviation operations originating both from station to intracontinental flights. During a typical Antarctic summer season, there are two meteorologists based at Davis Station and three meteorologists based at Casey Station. While Mawson Station doesn’t have a dedicated local meteorologist, they still receive forecasting support most commonly from the meteorologists based out of Davis. Similarly on Macquarie Island, forecasting support comes from Hobart. As the overwhelming majority of activities that require forecasting support occur during the summer months, meteorologists don’t remain on station over the winter. Instead, any adhoc forecasting support required over the winter is provided by meteorologists in Hobart.
For most of my journeys south, I have been transported by ship, most commonly on the Aurora Australis. I particularly appreciate this mode of transport, as it is similar to the journeys of famous Antarctic explorers back in the day. It makes me feel as though I am following in their footsteps, and experiencing the gamut of emotions that the Southern Ocean can reveal, as they too would have experienced traversing through the roaring forties and the furious fifties, only to reach the screaming sixties. And once you cross over the Antarctic convergence zone things start to become eerily calm and quiet. Large dynamic ocean waves give way to stable sea ice and majestic icebergs begin to pepper the horizon.
You feel as though you have entered into another world, and in some ways you have.
Most people don’t realise that the work of an Antarctic meteorologist commences while you are on the ship. Each morning, the meteorologist rises before most of the other passengers on the ship have stirred. You make your way up onto the ship’s deck where you get the ship’s coordinates from the captain, and also their expected track for the next few days. Based on this information, the meteorologist works with limited weather and ocean model data that has been sent via satellite internet and produces a forecast based on the ships expected trajectory. The meteorologist then verbally briefs this information to the crew on deck who then make decisions such as whether to remain on course, or to speed up or slow down depending on the forecasted weather and swell conditions. This morning briefing can sometimes be an interesting and unexpectedly challenging experience, particularly when you are in heavy seas trying to communicate information to the crew and you are struggling to stand upright and in one place! Once the briefing concludes, it is time to join the rest of the passengers on the ship for breakfast.
The Met Office at Casey Station with the winter accumulation of snow in the window. Credit: Louise Carroll
This morning routine continues for the entirety of the voyage, which is around two weeks long when being transported to Davis Station. Once you arrive on station, the work again commences almost immediately. Since there aren’t any meteorologists working on the Antarctic stations over the winter, it is the incoming meteorologist’s duty to start up the computers and make sure the model data is coming through as it should. As with most technology, things rarely go to plan the first time you start them up, so there is often time spent liaising with IT experts in Hobart to get things running as they should. By the time things are set up as required, the station leader is often already calling and asking for a weather briefing to assess whether flying operations for resupply can commence the very next day.
Being embedded on an Australian Antarctic Station the meteorologists work alongside the weather observers, who submit regular weather reports and collect atmospheric data that becomes ingested into the numerical weather models which assists meteorologists to formulate their weather forecasts. This ‘Met’ team is also part of the broader operations team on station, which includes the comms operators, the operations manager and the station leader.
A typical day for a meteorologist on station once again starts before most of the station personnel have risen for the day.
There is an operations meeting typically around 0800 each day which includes a verbal weather briefing. Therefore, all station and aviation forecasts required for the day need to be completed prior to this briefing. One of the primary roles of the meteorologist is to provide forecasting support to the aircraft flying around the station, taking scientists and tradies out into the field on various projects. Therefore, also participating in these daily operations briefings are the pilots who make decisions on where to fly that day, based on the weather forecast they have received.
Once the daily briefing has concluded, much of the rest of the day is spent writing up any other forecasts that need to be done, such as voyage forecasts and station forecasts for other stations. Monitoring of the weather is an important part of the job while there are aircraft flying into the field. This is to ensure that the forecasts produced in the morning are on track and there isn’t any unexpected weather developing.
If unexpected weather does develop, the meteorologist needs to communicate this to the pilots out in the field via the comms operator. A meteorologist’s day isn’t done until all aircraft are back on station, which is often around dinnertime.
While there is much work to be done on station, there is always the opportunity to go out and explore the surrounds of the station in which you are stationed. For me, I enjoy being based at Davis Station as there is the opportunity to hike and explore the Vestfold Hills which are located just behind Davis Station. Field huts are strategically located throughout the Vestfold Hills so that you are able to hike out with a group and spend the night in a hut before hiking back to station the next day. It’s a wonderful way to experience and appreciate the remoteness of where you are and puts into perspective the significance of the expedition you are a small part of. Hiking through the Vestfold Hills and its pristine environment, I realise that it is the only place on the planet that I have hiked that is free from rubbish and still in its natural state.
Now as I am preparing to embark on my fifth Antarctic expedition, my excitement levels are rising once again at the prospect of returning to this unique and special place. I still feel grateful for every opportunity I have had to contribute to an Antarctic expedition and hope I am lucky enough to participate in more into the future.
Having a deep personal connection to Antarctica has made me become more protective of the continent.
It supports one of the most fragile ecosystems we have on our planet and is vulnerable to the environmentally destructive activities we undertake as a species. We must remain hopeful and purposeful in our actions in addressing climate change so that precious places such as Antarctica are preserved and may continue to inspire others into the future.
The article I Was a Meteorologist in Antarctica was originally published in the 2022 Spring edition of the ANARE Club journal Aurora, Volume 42 #1 pages 16-18. It is kindly reproduced here with the permission of the ANARE Club.
The ANARE Club was formed in 1951 so members of the Australian National Antarctic Research Expeditions (ANARE) could stay in touch and celebrate their shared experiences. While returned expeditioners join the ANARE Club to maintain friendships, access resources and stay in touch with what is happening down south, the Club is also open to anyone interested in the Antarctic. The journal, Aurora, is issued quarterly and is always looking for interesting articles on expeditioners’ experiences, particularly relating to the Australian sector. Visit the website for more information: https://www.anareclub.org.