Antarctica: What lies beneath

The history of Geoscience Australia in Antarctica.

Australian Antarctic Division permanent research stations (2015-06)Geoscience Australia

Geoscience Australia in Antarctica

The Antarctic continent is located directly south of Australia and has long been of interest to Australian scientists. The Australian Antarctic Territory claim is the largest on the continent, covering approximately 42% of Antarctica. Three Antarctic research bases were established within the Australian Antarctic Territory between 1954 and 1969: Mawson, Davis, and Casey Stations (the latter was previously known as 'Repstat'). All three are still in operation today. 

Map of Antarctica with Territorial Claims (1986) by Division of National Mapping, Department of Resources and Energy, Canberra and Antarctic Division, Department of Science, Kingston, TasmaniaGeoscience Australia

The establishment of Australia’s three Antarctic research stations enabled geologists and surveyors to continue the reconnaissance geological surveys that were necessary to establish Australia’s presence in Antarctica. In this map, the green dotted lines outline Australia's Antarctic claims.

Geologists and surveyors working for Geoscience Australia’s precursor organisations were instrumental in creating these early maps, surveys, and geological reports across the Australian Antarctic Territory.

This was a hugely challenging task. Most of Antarctica’s surface is covered by ice, so the mapping teams travelled vast distances to find exposed rocks that they could use to understand the landscape hidden beneath the ice.

In recognition of the heroic efforts of these pioneers of Antarctic mapping, many geographical features are named after them.

If you look closely, you will spot the McLeod Nunataks, named after geologist Ian McLeod.

Geographical features are also named after Antarctic surveyors, geophysicists and map makers. For example, the Manning Nunataks after surveyor John Manning; the Goodspeed Nunataks after geophysicist M. J. Goodspeed; and the Lambert Glacier after cartographer Bruce Lambert.

Geologists in Antarctica (1958-01)Geoscience Australia

Geologists in Antarctica

Geoscience Australia has had a long and proud association with Antarctica. One of our predecessor organisations, the Bureau of Mineral Resources, sent geologists and surveyors on the Australian National Antarctic Research Expeditions. The following images feature some of those, whose work in Antarctica led to a greater understanding of what lies beneath the frozen continent.

Geologist in Antarctica (1965-01)Geoscience Australia

Geologist Dave Trail in Mac Robertson Land, near the Taylor Glacier.

The Trail Glacier and Mt Trail are two Antarctic landscape features that were named in honour of Dave's contribution to Antarctic science.

Geologist in Antarctica (1960-01)Geoscience Australia

Geologist Ian McLeod, taking geological notes in Wilkes Land, eastern Antarctica.

Rocks are more frequently exposed around the coastal fringes of Antarctica, so the geologists could sometimes enjoy these beautiful views over the Southern Ocean.

The McLeod Massif, located south of Mawson Station, was named in recognition of Ian's work in Antarctica.

Geologist Bob Tingey collecting rock samplesGeoscience Australia

Geologist Robert 'Bob' Tingey collecting a sample of Antarctic rock to be shipped back to Australia for further analysis.

Bob spent seven field seasons in Antarctica, and was instrumental in the publication of the first comprehensive volume dedicated to Antarctic geology.

Geographic features in Antarctica that are named after Bob include the Tingey Glacier in the Prince Charles Mountains and the Tingey Nunataks (rocks that are exposed at the edge of glaciers).

Geologists conducting fieldwork in AntarcticaGeoscience Australia

Expeditionary field geologists in Antarctica spent months in the field, in challenging and sometimes uncomfortable conditions, so they had to be very hardy! As did their equipment. This 'polar pyramid' tent is designed to withstand blizzard conditions. The polar pyramid is still the tent used most frequently by Antarctic expeditioners.

MV Nella DanGeoscience Australia

Transport to Antarctica

The ‘Dan’ ships were integral in Australia’s Antarctic research between 1953 and 1987. The ships were built by the Danish shipping company J. Lauritzen. Each ship had an ice-strengthened hull to provide protection against the challenging ice conditions, allowing the ship to cut through pack ice. The ships were the first to be painted the vivid red that has become the signature colour of polar ships today.  

MV Nella Dan at the edge of fast ice (1965-01)Geoscience Australia

Here, the Nella Dan has reached the edge of the fast ice north of Cape Bruce, Mac. Robertson Land. 'Fast ice' is anchored to the coastline or the sea floor. Unlike pack ice, it does not move with waves or currents.

Geologist Ian McLeod's team of sled dogsGeoscience Australia

Sled Dogs in Antarctica

From the 1950s until the early 1990s, expeditioners often travelled around Antarctica to remote locations using sledges pulled by teams of huskies. Not only were the huskies strong and reliable workers, but they also provided companionship to the Antarctic expeditioners. The following photographs show some of the huskies, with their geological mapping teams. The use of sled dogs in Antarctica by Australians ceased in 1992, after all introduced species (except humans) were banned from Antarctica.  

Geologist Ian McLeod, with LewisGeoscience Australia

Geologist Ian McLeod with sled dog Lewis.

Geologists Peter King (L) and Graham Knuckey (R), with LennieGeoscience Australia

Peter King and Graham Knuckey, with sled dog Lennie.

Geologist in Antarctica (1965-02)Geoscience Australia

Understanding the Geology of Antarctica

Most of Antarctica is covered in ice, so geologists must infer the regional geology from small sections of rock that are exposed. These rocks are highly varied and in some cases are unique to Antarctica. The study of Antarctica's geology has led to many important discoveries. For example, did you know that Australia and Antarctica were once part of one giant 'supercontinent' called Gondwana? Geologists have used Antarctic geology to help determine when Australia and Antarctica began to break apart, during the Early Cretaceous. 

Geologist in Antarctica (1965-02)Geoscience Australia

As well as making detailed field observations, geologists in Antarctica collect rock samples while out in the field. These samples help them to understand the geology of the area in greater detail. Geoscience Australia maintains a collection of rocks collected on Antarctic expeditions dating back to the 1950s.

Packing geological rock samples in Antarctica (1970-02)Geoscience Australia

Rocks collected from Antarctica were packed up and shipped back to Australia. On return to Australia, the rock samples were registered and then analysed by geologists to determine their composition and age. This information was then used to create maps and reports of the area.

Bottom sediment sampling on board the MV Nella Dan (1965-01)Geoscience Australia

As well as characterising rocks, Antarctic geologists collected sediment on the sea floor around Antarctica. Sediment was retrieved using specialised samplers that were lowered to the sea floor from polar vessels. Such samples are still used to understand sea floor environments, including habitats, around Antarctica.

Schematic geological map of Antarctica (first edition) (1991) by R. J. TingeyGeoscience Australia

The culmination of the research undertaken by Antarctic geologists is the geological map. This map was compiled by Bob Tingey. It incorporates information gained from many years of fieldwork done by numerous geologists and surveyors, as well as the results of laboratory work that was used to determine the age of the rocks.

Most Antarctic rocks are hidden below a thick layer of ice, so most of our knowledge of the geology comes from rocks that are exposed around the fringes of the continent.

Inland of the rocks exposed at the coastal margins, much of Antarctica remains a geological mystery.

The colours of each unit on a geological map such as this one represent different rock types. The upper case letter of the code represents the age of the rock and the lower case letters indicate the rock type. For example, the light green rock type has the code 'Mg'. The 'M' stands for 'Mesozoic', and the 'g' stands for 'granitoids'. Volcanic rocks from the Mesozoic have the code 'Mvt', and are coloured pale green with red arrows.

The ages were determined using two methods - field observations by the geologists and laboratory testing back in Australia.

This key is arranged in chronological order and includes both the age of the rocks and the rock types. As you can see here, the geology of Antarctica covers a huge age range, from the Cainozoic (this is the current geological era, more commonly called the Cenozoic) all the way back to the Archaean (older than 2.5 billion years).

Rock from the Larsemann Hills, with abundant prismatine Rock from the Larsemann Hills, with abundant prismatineGeoscience Australia

Geoheritage in the Larsemann Hills

Antarctica is home to minerals which are rare elsewhere in the world, but found in abundance on the frozen continent. The Larsemann Hills area contains several unique minerals and is one of the few geological sites to be designated an Antarctic Specially Protected Area - the highest level of protection in Antarctica.

Geo-heritage in the Larsemann Hills, Antarctica (2015-04) by Geoscience Australia, Products and Promotion and Dr Chris CarsonGeoscience Australia

Watch Geoscience Australia geologist Dr Chris Carson explain what minerals are found in the area and how these have been protected.

Page from a geologist's field notebook (1961-01)Geoscience Australia

Field Notebooks

The N. H. (Doc) Fisher Geoscience Library located at Geoscience Australia has a collection of almost 100 Antarctic field notebooks. These date back from the first  voyage as part of the Australian National Antarctic Research Expeditions in summer 1947/48, to the sub-Antarctic Heard and Macquarie islands. Geologists recorded their observations of the environment, information about rock samples they collected and logistical matters like weather and supplies. The notebooks remain an important source of primary information for geologists today. They have been digitised and transcribed by Citizen Scientists so that everyone can read them.

Geological field notebookGeoscience Australia

Antarctic geologists must take detailed, legible notes that will be understood and used by scientists long after the field research is conducted.

Credits: Story

The National Mineral and Fossil Collection, Geoscience Australia (images and specimens).

Chris Carson Collection

Jane Black (Geoscience Australia Library)

Georgina Falster (text & editing)

Alix Post (scientific review)

Katy Buffinton (review)

Copyright for content:

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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