The Australian Antarctic Territory: Antarctic and sub-Antarctic cultural heritage

Independent report to the Australian Government Minister for the Environment and Heritage
Beeton RJS (Bob), Buckley Kristal I, Jones Gary J, Morgan Denise, Reichelt Russell E, Trewin Dennis
(2006 Australian State of the Environment Committee), 2006

10.3 Antarctic and sub-Antarctic cultural heritage

The Australian Antarctic Territory contains some important heritage sites. Located on the Antarctic continent and on Heard and Macquarie Islands in the sub-Antarctic, they are:

  • sites associated with the sealing industry and shipwrecks  on Heard and Macquarie Islands
  • sites associated with early (1911–14) scientific endeavour and exploration, notably Mawson’s Huts  (added to the National Heritage List in 2005) and Cape Denison
  • evidence of the British Australian New Zealand Antarctic Research Expeditions of Douglas Mawson between 1929 and 1931
  • sites associated with the Australian National Antarctic Research Expeditions (ANARE) and agencies of other nations that established research stations after World War II (Atlas Cove at Heard Island, Buckles Bay at Macquarie Island , and Mawson , Davis  and Wilkes  stations on the Antarctic continent).

In addition to these sites, a lot of material related to cultural heritage in Antarctica is held in collections  in and outside of Australia.

The condition of Antarctica’s heritage sites varies. For example, the ANARE station at Atlas Cove on Heard Island is mostly dismantled, while elements of the site associated with Mawson’s Huts are relatively well preserved. Some structures are maintained as part of permanently occupied research stations, like Mawson. Monitoring and regular maintenance are essential for the continued survival of standing structures, including standing ruins, such as the transit and absolute magnetic huts at the site associated with Mawson’s Huts.

Many of the portable artefacts associated with these sites are slowly deteriorating and have only a limited lifespan due to the high cost of conservation of artefacts in situ. Because their significance could be compromised by removal, managed decay has been adopted as a strategy for moveable heritage objects at most sites. There is debate about this approach and it should be monitored to ensure that as little cultural significance as possible is lost. There is limited time to preserve and document these sites because of deterioration, and an appropriate policy response will be needed in the near future. The changes to the EPBC  Act  impose new requirements on the Australian Government Antarctic Division in its management of this historic heritage .

Collections of material associated with sub-Antarctic and Antarctic cultural heritage are housed in a number of museums and other institutions in Australia, including private collections. Some material is held in overseas collections, for example, the Canterbury Museum in Christchurch, New Zealand houses the magnetometer used for Mawson’s 1911–14 expedition.

These collections are generally not at risk, although conservation assessments are required on some. As much of the material held privately was collected opportunistically, it is impossible to assess quantity or condition. An unknown quantity of material was also collected by early expeditioners and is now owned by descendants.

Key points

  • Antarctica plays a key role in regulating the world’s weather, climate and oceanic processes. Antarctica serves as an early warning system for the rest of the world.
  • No significant changes are reported in overall Antarctic sea ice extent since the 1970s, although significant regional changes are evident, particularly around the western Antarctic Peninsula.
  • The ecosystems of the Southern Ocean have been subjected to considerable human-induced pressure for over 200 years. Sealing, whaling and fishing have had significant effects on the stocks of marine species, and while some are recovering, illegal and unregulated fishing is impacting other species.
  • Tourist visits to Australian sub-Antarctic islands and the Australian Antarctic Territory are a small proportion of Antarctic tourism, with 100 tourists on four vessels visiting the site of Mawson’s Huts since 2002–03. However, the environment and heritage of Antarctica are very vulnerable to visitor pressure, and close monitoring is warranted.
  • Historic heritage places and objects are subject to significant pressures from climatic conditions . The current levels of conservation activity—including the policy of managed decay—could lead to the loss of significant material.
  • Changes in the Antarctic environment are inevitable due to global factors such as climate change and atmospheric and oceanic pollutants .