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The Australasian Antarctic Expedition (AAE) was an Australasian scientific team that explored part of Antarctica between 1911 and 1914. It was led by the Australian geologist Douglas Mawson, who was knighted for his achievements in leading the expedition. In 1910 he began to plan an expedition to chart the 2000-mile long coastline of Antarctica to the south of Australia. The Australasian Association for the Advancement of Science approved of his plans and contributed substantial funds for the expedition. The remaining funds were raised by public subscription and additional donations.
Accomplishments were made in geology, glaciology and terrestrial biology, unlike both of Ernest Shackleton's following expeditions which produced very little science. In a celebration of the achievements of Mawson and his men, a centenary scientific voyage, retracing the route of the original expedition, departed from Australasia in late 2013 and became stuck on 24 December 2013.
The team selected for the expedition came primarily from universities in Australia and New Zealand. Of the men who would occupy bases on the Antarctic continent, twenty-two were Australian residents. Four were New Zealanders, three British and one Swiss. Three of the leaders (Mawson, Wild and Davis) were veterans of other Antarctic voyages.
They would sail on the Newfoundland sealing vessel Aurora, a steam-powered sailing vessel with a length of 165 feet and a displacement of 600 tons. The ship underwent modifications for the trip, including adding three large tanks for storing fresh water. The Aurora captain was John King Davis.
The vessel departed for Macquarie Island on 2 December 1911, arriving on 11 December after surviving stormy weather during the crossing. A second vessel, the Toroa, followed with supplies and passengers. Departing Macquarie Island on 23 December, the Aurora began exploring the coastal areas, during which the vessel and its men discovered and named King George V Land and Queen Mary Land.
The expedition built their main base, or winter quarters, at Cape Denison in Commonwealth Bay, where eighteen men spent the winter of 1912 and seven spent the winter of 1913. (Their huts still stand – two intact and two as ruins: Mawson's Huts, now managed as an historic site by the Australian Antarctic Division). They also built two auxiliary bases, a support base and wireless relay station on Macquarie Island initially headed by George Ainsworth, and a western base on the Shackleton Ice Shelf, but these two auxiliary bases no longer survive.
The teams at all three bases conducted routine scientific and meteorological observations, which were recorded in great detail in the voluminous reports of the expedition (not published until 1922-1942). They also overcame months of failures with equipment and masts by eventually establishing the first Antarctic wireless radio connection (linked to Hobart via a radio relay station established at Wireless Hill on Macquarie Island).
Coastal and inland sledging journeys enabled the teams to explore previously unknown lands. In the second half of 1912, there were five major journeys from the main base and two from the western base.
Mawson himself was part of a three-man sledging team, the Far Eastern Party, with Xavier Mertz, and Lieutenant B. E. S. Ninnis who headed east on 10 November 1912 to survey King George V Land. On 14 December 1912, after three weeks of excellent progress, the party was crossing the Ninnis Glacier, when Ninnis fell through a snow-covered crevasse. Mertz had skied over the crevasse lid, Mawson had been on his sled with his weight disbursed but Ninnis was jogging beside the second sled and his body weight is likely to have breached the lid. Six dogs, most of the party's rations, their tent and other essential supplies disappeared into a massive crevasse 480 km east of the main base. Mertz and Mawson spotted one dead and one injured dog on a ledge 46m down but Ninnis was never seen again.
Mawson and Xavier Mertz turned back immediately. Their scanty provisions forced them to eat their remaining sled dogs, unwittingly causing a quick deterioration in the men's physical condition. The liver of one dog contains enough vitamin A to produce the condition called Hypervitaminosis A. Mertz became incapacitated and incoherent; in an attempt to nurse him back to health, Mawson fed him most of the dog livers, which he considered more nourishing than the tough muscle tissue. After Mertz died, Mawson continued alone for 30 days. He cut his sled in half with a pen knife and dragged the sled with geological specimens but minimal food 160 km back to the base at Cape Denison. During the return trip to the Main Base, he fell through the lid of a crevasse and was saved only by his sledge wedging itself into the ice above him. When Mawson finally made it back to Cape Denison on 8 February 1913 the words of his first rescuer upon finding Mawson were, "My God, which one are you?" However it was just hours after Davis's recovery party had left on the Aurora. The ship was recalled by wireless communication, only to have bad weather thwart the rescue effort. Mawson, and six men who had remained behind to look for him, wintered a second unplanned year until December 1913.
As the expedition commander Douglas Mawson was himself a geologist, the examination of the accessible (i.e., not covered by ice) rock formations of Wilkes Land was a key feature of the expedition.
The expedition is noted for having achieved the first discovery of a meteorite, a chondrite, 30 km west of Cape Denison. Over the following century a trove of meteorites have been discovered in this region of Antarctica.
The location chosen by Mawson for the main base camp, at Cape Denison, proved to be one of the places on Earth with the strongest wind forces, with local morphology – the abrupt gradient between the East Antarctic ice plateau and the Antarctic Ocean - creating conditions ripe for the generation of near-continuous katabatic wind conditions.
The Aurora carried a Marconi wireless set and another was set up at Cape Denison, but due to the competitive nature of Antarctic exploration at the time transmissions were kept to an absolute minimum. Atmospheric conditions associated with the Aurora Australis interfered with radio transmissions on many occasions, but the expedition parties were generally able to receive news from the outside world reasonably regularly.
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