Research agreement between Switzerland and Australia | Polarjournal
The head of the Australian Antarctic Division, Kim Ellis, signs the Statement of Commitment between Australia’s AAD and Switzerland, which is represented by the Swiss Polar Institute. The agreement provides for close cooperation in the field of research between the two nations over the next ten years. Photo: Dan Broun, AAD

Switzerland and Australia have many points of contact when it comes to Antarctica. At the forefront is certainly the fact that with Sir Douglas Mawson’s first Australian Antarctic Expedition in 1911–14, the first Swiss citizen and stepped on Antarctic soil and had been a valuable member of the expedition. Now Switzerland and Australia have sealed their long-term historical cooperation in the field of research with a new agreement. The signing of the Statement of Commitment was celebrated online yesterday.

The agreement between the Australian Antarctic Division AAD and the Swiss Polar Institute SPI was signed by director Kim Ellis of the Australian Antarctic Division AAD, responsible for Antarctic research in the Australian sector of Antarctica. Due to the COVID pandemic, the Swiss ambassador to Australia, Pedro Zwahlen, and the head of the Swiss Polar Institute, Daniéle Rod, were represented online. Other online guests included Gabriela Schaepman-Strub, Head of the Science and Technology Advisory Board, Dr. Martin Schneebeli, Head of the Snow Research Group at the Swiss Avalanche Research Institute, Dr. Martin Vetterli, Rector of EPFL Lausanne and other exponents of Swiss Polar Research and Science. The ceremony took place at a small circle at the AAD headquarters in Hobart, Tasmania. Due to the pandemic, events in Australia are only possible on a small scale and the country wants to keep its borders closed until next year.

In his speech, the head of the Australian Antarctic Division, Kim Ellis, underlined the cooperation between Switzerland and Australia with a picture of Xavier Mertz during the Mawson expedition 1911-14. In addition to the Swiss ambassador to Australia, the head of the Swiss Polar Institute, the head of the Snow research group in Davos and various representatives of Swiss polar research had joined the ceremony. Photo: Dan Broun, AAD

In their speeches on the agreement, the two sides highlighted the many similarities in Antarctica. Australia and Switzerland are both strong supporters of the Antarctic Treaty system, which establishes Antarctica as a nature reserve dedicated to peace and research. The fact that both countries have been working together for two years in the field of cryosphere research by the International Space Research Institute and through studies on the effects of global sea level variations on clouds and precipitation was also highlighted. The head of the SPI, Daniéle Rod, also explained that the cooperation had great potential and that during the first Swiss Antarctic expedition in 2017, a close cooperation between the two countries had existed also. And Ambassador Zwahlen stressed: “Most importantly, Swiss and Australian scientists leveraging the AAD’s unique infrastructure in Antarctica and the Southern Ocean will advance our understanding of the engine of the earth’s climate.”

Australia’s flagship for Antarctic exploration, the icebreaker RV Nuyina, will bring scientists to the three research stations from next season on and will also help gain new research results from the South Polar Sea and Antarctica. Researchers from Switzerland could also be on board. Photo: Viorel Vlase

The focus of both countries will be on climate research (clouds, precipitation) and ice and snow research. Both can benefit from the experiences of the other side. With the University of Bern and the Swiss Avalanche Research Centre of the WSL, Switzerland is very prominently represented in cryosphere research and Australia also benefits from their expertise and knowledge. On the other hand, the agreement gives Switzerland the opportunity to make greater use of the research facilities at Davis station and the new icebreaker RV Nuyina, plus to become even more involved in Australia’s BEYOND EPICA and Million Year Ice Core drilling projects.

The first Swiss in Antarctica, Xavier Mertz, was on the first Australian Antarctic expedition with Sir Douglas Mawson. The Swiss turned out to be an important and valuable member of the research expedition which had encountered many difficulties. Unfortunately, Mertz died on January 8, 1913, during a arduous journey back from a tour that nearly cost Mawson his life. In Switzerland, the Swiss’s story almost went down, yet in Australia it is still alive. Images: Frank Hurley / Xavier Mertz from the book “Xavier Mertz, Lost in Antarctica”

Switzerland and Australia have not been linked just recently in Antarctic research. It dates back to 1911, when Xavier Mertz from Basel took part in the first Australian expedition under Sir Douglas Mawson. Mertz made a name for himself as a ski instructor, dog handler, photographer and research assistant. He also helped to establish the first research station on Macquarie Island and the Antarctic continent. Unfortunately, Xavier Mertz died on January 8, 1913, on a dramatic return from a research trip he had undertaken with Mawson. In his honour, the Australian named a huge glacier, the Mertz Glacier, which still extends far into the Southern Ocean and which testifies to the fact that Switzerland also is a part of Antarctica.

Dr Michael Wenger, PolarJournal

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