Antarctic adventure

10 April 2017 | Story by Yusuf Omar
A team of scientists en route to an ice core drilling site. Photo Jean-François Lagrot for ACE.
A team of scientists en route to an ice core drilling site. Photo Jean-François Lagrot for ACE.

Fancy floating around Antarctica for three months?

Three UCT scientists certainly did.

Professor Peter Ryan from the Fitzpatrick Institute of Ornithology, and Dr Sarah Fawcett and postgraduate student Heather Forrer from the Department of Oceanography, jumped at the chance to join one of the biggest and most ambitious scientific expeditions in history. The Antarctic Circumnavigation Expedition (ACE) drew dozens of scientists from around the world and swung them round Antarctica on the Russian research vessel Akademik Treshnikov.

The goal: to see first-hand, through a broad range of scientific disciplines, what impact climate change is having on the Southern Ocean and what it means for us landlubbers.

Ryan, an ornithologist, not only spotted a pleasing abundance of birds and whales, but a disturbing density of synthetic microfibres in the waters around Antarctica. There was little other debris floating about and Ryan believes that the origin of the fibres could be washing machine waste water.

“The sea is the ultimate sink for anything that goes into the environment,” said Ryan.

This, of course, heightens fears that marine creatures will ingest these synthetic fibres, said Fawcett.

“They can [also] be a vector for toxic compounds,” Ryan offered, cautioning that the fibres’ impact on the Southern Ocean’s health still needs to be investigated.

“It was a shocking finding,” said Forrer.

Once-in-a-lifetime adventure

ACE was the brainchild of Frederik Paulsen, a reclusive pharma billionaire, philanthropist and the first person in the world to have attained all eight poles. In late 2015 scientists around the world were invited to propose research projects for a first-of-its-kind circumnavigation of Antarctica, as the first project of the newly created Swiss Polar Institute. The Akademik Treshnikov set sail from Cape Town on 20 December 2016 on the first of the three legs of its circumpolar voyage.

Ryan and Forrer were aboard; Ryan for all three legs and Forrer for two. Fawcett was meant to join the ship for leg three, but circumstances meant she had to ask Forrer to step up instead.

First things first: would they go back to the icy loneliness of Antarctica?

“Absolutely” and “definitely” were Ryan and Forrer’s respective, unequivocal responses.

“It was a unique opportunity to see the whole thing in one go,” said Ryan.

Antarctic adventureAlpha Mike, the research team helicopter, in full action. Photo Sarah Perrin, EPFL, for ACE.

For Forrer, befriending scientists from all over the world was just one of the reasons the trip was “unforgettable”. That, and as Fawcett reminded her, “You got to land [in] a helicopter on an iceberg!”

Forrer grins: “For the record, Sarah wasn’t happy about not being able to go on leg three!”

Understandably so, if the tales of seas full of marine life, strange hunting techniques by creatures concealed beneath the ice and photos of sunset helicopter rides to Mount Siple, near which spaceship-like icebergs loomed, are anything to go by.

Calm seas

More than 100 scientists working on 22 projects were jockeying for ship-time throughout the trip.

“It was a very unusual kind of cruise,” Ryan remarked. “It was unlike anything I’ve been on before.”

Accommodating all the scientists became a mission of its own. Some projects were land-based, some ship-based. “It was quite hectic,” said Ryan.

“The job of chief scientist was not one that one wanted, so hats off to [chief scientist] David Walton for more or less making it work,” he added.

It was unusual in another way, too. Scientists usually suggest hypotheses which they then go out and test, said Fawcett, who studies the open oceans. But with ACE, the route had largely been planned beforehand and it was then put to the scientists to come up with research questions they’d like to tackle.

“We really can’t predict some of the results that are going to come out of this,” Fawcett said. “There are probably going to be some amazing things.”

Antarctic adventureThe view from below the Akademika Treshnikov’s deck. Photo Sharif Mirshak for ACE.

One crew might have appreciated a touch more predictability. They’d boarded with hopes of studying the Southern Ocean’s notoriously monstrous waves.

“The irony was that they were mainly on board [during] leg two, which was the calmest, smoothest leg,” Ryan chuckled. “We hardly had any rough weather when they were on board. They were unhappy … it was great for us, though.”

Treading rarefied soil

The explorers visited an array of remote islands. Marion, Crozet, Kerguelen, Balleny, Scott, Peter I, Diego Ramirez, South Georgia, South Sandwich and Bouvet were among the sub-Antarctic islands where the Akademik Treshnikov docked.

Some of those islands haven’t felt human feet for years and even decades, said Forrer.

The samples gathered there will, it is hoped, shed light on how flora and fauna evolve and adapt to extreme environments.

One place they couldn’t set foot on was Heard Island, which is protected by Australia’s conservation laws. The researchers had to be satisfied with watching the land mass’s highest peaks materialise from behind its misty shroud – a rare treat for passers-by.

Why circumnavigate Antarctica?

Why spend three months sailing some of the world’s coldest, roughest seas?

For starters, the poles are probably the best places to witness climate change’s most extreme mischiefs. The largest temperature differences have been recorded here. The Southern Ocean in particular is crucial to mediating the Earth’s climate, said Ryan.

“You might think Antarctica is out there, but it really is very important in terms of controlling where we’re going to go and giving us a feeling of how serious climate change is going to be. We know it’s serious, but is it catastrophically serious or not so?”

Antarctic adventure There’s always time for fun and games, as these fur seals near the South Sandwich Islands might argue. Photo Sharif Mirshak for ACE.

This expedition allowed scientists to gather plenty of data to plug into their climate-change-forecasting algorithms, said Fawcett.

“I think that this is going to lead to a lot of really important constraints on how we understand the role of this region in climate,” said Fawcett.

Fawcett was looking specifically at carbon uptake in the surface ocean community – essentially, how much CO₂ the ocean absorbs – and how that might be changing. The poles are critical to the carbon cycle.

“The sub-Antarctic is just this region of extreme gradients between the subtropics and the polar ocean, and it’s starting to change and is changing so rapidly,” added Fawcett.

Catastrophically rapidly?

“You’re not going to get scientists to commit to saying that!” laughed Fawcett.

Results, though, are expected in two years.

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