While our year is drawing to a close, the Antarctic research period is only just beginning. A ten-week expedition to the Lazarev Sea and the eastern part of the Weddel Sea has just left Cape Town on its 24th scientific voyage.
A total of 53 scientists from eight nations are travelling aboard the Polarstem, a German research vessel. In addition to supplying the German Neumayer Station, the Polarstem will be conducting climate-related research.
“Our research projects will improve the understanding of physical and biological processes associated with the Antarctic Circumpolar Current and the Weddell Gyre, both of which play a key role for the earth’s climate”, explains chief scientist Prof Dr Ulrich Bathmann of the Alfred Wegener Institute for Polar and Marine Research in the Helmholtz Association, referring to the central goal of the expedition.
We’ve spoken often here at GO and PS about the need for carbon dioxide to be drawn down to the bottom of the ocean. In many areas of the world, an artificial method is being dreamed up to stimulate this process. However in the Southern Ocean, it is occurring naturally.
Plankton algae from the two main currents mentioned by Bathmann (ACC and Wddell Gyre) absorb large amounts of carbon dioxide. And by sinking to the seafloor, to depths that sometimes reach 4000 meters, they end up providing food for the bottom dwelling organisms.
“The efficiency of this biological pump is controlled, for example, by nutrients, by physical dynamics in the ocean surface layer, and by the species of algae involved”, says Bathmann. “We have to investigate these complex interactions further, in order to optimize scientific climate predictions.”
Another research program, SCACE (Synoptic Circum-Antarctic Climate and Ecosystem Study) will continue to explore the interrelations – both physical and biological – in the Antarctic Circumpolar Current.
“The Antarctic Circumpolar Current measures several hundred kilometres across, surrounding the Antarctic continent and connecting all large oceans”, explains Ulrich Bathmann. “This large ocean current transports both heat energy and fresh water, plays a central role in the ocean-wide cycles of dissolved material, and contains a series of distinct ecosystems that may displace each other with changing climate regimes.”
The third project, which I find particularly cool, is called ANDEEP-SYSTCO, and focuses on what lies beneath. No, nothing related to the final season of Buffy, rather the sea-life that exists below the surface of Antarctica.
The continental shelf regions surrounding Antarctica are relatively well explored, but the deep sea remains almost totally unexplored. Deep sea environments, the study led by Prof Dr Angelika Brandt of the Zoological Institute of the University of Hamburg will attempt to probe these areas.
“Since deep sea research continues to take us to unknown worlds, we are expecting some new and fascinating insights regarding biological diversity in the ocean, perhaps even the discovery of previously unknown species”, explains Bathmann.
Alfred Wegener Institute for Polar and Marine Research via PhysOrg
Photo courtesy British Antarctic Survey