Scientists at work: Stuck in the Antarctic ice we set out to study

Jan 13, 2014 by Erik Van Sebille, The Conversation
On board the wonderful Australian icebreaker Aurora australis. Credit: Intrepid Science

Antarctica is a desolate place. That much we know, but nothing prepares you for it until you actually get there. It's cold, windy and lonely. Everything about it is the exact opposite of my normal summer destination. But scientists value the continent like an uncut gem.

Every bit of data retrieved from Antarctica pushes science forward. Which is why just over a month ago, we set out on the Australasian Antarctic Expedition 2013. Our goal was a survey of the Southern Ocean near a place called Commonwealth Bay, which is unique because its conditions changed dramatically a few years ago.

Ever since Sir Douglas Mawson first arrived in Commonwealth Bay in 1912, the place has been ice-free and directly connected to the Southern Ocean in summer. But in 2010 a giant iceberg (B09B, almost 100km wide) ran aground in the middle of the bay and since then sea ice has been building up around the berg. There is now 70km of ice between the ocean and the site where Mawson sailed in.

Scientifically, the iceberg offers a wonderful opportunity. Climate change in Antarctica means melting of the ice sheet, but also an increase in sea ice. While the extra sea ice in Commonwealth Bay is not directly due to climate change, the site offers a unique glimpse of how it affects the ecosystems.

Commonwealth Bay is as close to a controlled lab experiment as one can get in Antarctic science. So despite my aversion to cold, I joined a team of ecologists, glaciologists, ornithologists and oceanographers heading south. Along with us, we had journalists, teachers and nearly two dozen paying science volunteers. We set out to study what difference an iceberg makes.

With the birds

I've been at sea before, having spent a total of 15 weeks aboard four different research vessels, measuring the temperature and salinity of the ocean. But all of these expeditions were in the subtropics. There isn't much ice around there.

Mawson’s original Australasian Antarctic Expedition. Credit: Intrepid Science

Taking observations on ice is much more difficult than in open water. Going off the ship is an endeavour – the Antarctic equivalent of a spacewalk. It requires careful planning and preparation. Even a short trip requires a full survival kit, including tent, sleeping bag, freeze-dried food and a plastic bag to use as toilet. This is because blizzards can trap people in the open without warning. Fortunately, we never needed to use the survival kit. Nor the plastic bag.

We returned to the ship with some amazing data. My ecologist colleagues found that kelp forests are dying in Commonwealth Bay because the sea ice blocks sunlight. My ornithologist colleague found that penguin colonies are in decline as the penguins need to walk so much further to get to open water. And I found that the water below the sea ice has become less saline.

The cyclic freezing and melting of the bottom parts of the sea ice annually has created a 40m thick freshwater lens. As freshwater freezes more easily than saltier water, the drop in salinity below the sea ice means that it is easier to form new sea ice. This is called a positive feedback cycle, and it means that the bay is likely to remain covered with sea ice for quite some time.

Testing times

The Shokalskiy in sea ice. Credit: Intrepid Science

And then we became world news. As we packed up our gear and got ready to sail back to New Zealand, we got caught by a massive outbreak of unusually thick, old . Within hours, our ship was surrounded by heavy ice, too thick for us to break through. We were stuck in our own experiment. Stranded in the ice we came to study.

Thanks to crews of the Chinese icebreaker Xue Long, the French icebreaker l'Astrolabe and the Australian icebreaker Aurora Australis, we were rescued. Not only did the evacuation they carry out bring everyone to safety, we were able to salvage our valuable samples and data as well. This data is crucial for helping us to understand Antarctica better.

Our adventure shows the difficulty of fieldwork in Antarctica. One hundred years since the first exploration it is still a major endeavour to get to the frozen continent. But there is so much research to be done – and we need all the help we can get.

Explore further: Explorers reach Mawson's Huts in Antarctica

add to favorites email to friend print save as pdf

Related Stories

Explorers reach Mawson's Huts in Antarctica

Dec 20, 2013

Two Australian explorers have battled dangerous sea ice to reach the historic Mawson's Huts in Antarctica which have been isolated for years by a giant iceberg blocking the route in, officials said Friday.

Rescue of icebound Antarctic ship faces setback

Dec 28, 2013

A Chinese icebreaker that was en route to rescue a ship trapped in Antarctic ice was forced to turn back on Saturday after being unable to push its way through the heavy sea ice.

Winds, rain halt Antarctic ship rescue

Jan 01, 2014

Strong winds and rain Wednesday prevented the helicopter rescue of passengers on a Russian ship stuck in ice off Antarctica, Australian authorities said, as those onboard rang in the New Year with a sing-song ...

An icebreaker gets stuck in the ice, photos are used to mislead

Jan 06, 2014

As the saying goes, a picture is worth a thousand words, and by now you might have seen dramatic images of passengers on stranded icebreaker Akademik Shokalskiy being rescued by helicopter last Friday after becoming lodged in Antarctica sea ice on Christmas Eve. ...

US icebreaker to rescue 2 ships in Antarctica

Jan 05, 2014

(AP)—A U.S. Coast Guard heavy icebreaker left Australia for Antarctica on Sunday to rescue more than 120 crew members aboard two icebreakers trapped in pack ice near the frozen continent's eastern edge, ...

West Antarctic ice sheet formed earlier than thought

Oct 09, 2013

About 34 million years ago, Earth transitioned from a warm "greenhouse" climate to a cold "icehouse" climate, marking the transition between the Eocene and Oligocene epochs. This transition has been associated with the formation ...

Recommended for you

NASA catches a weaker Edouard, headed toward Azores

7 hours ago

NASA's Aqua satellite passed over the Atlantic Ocean and captured a picture of Tropical Storm Edouard as it continues to weaken. The National Hurricane Center expects Edouard to affect the western Azores ...

Tree rings and arroyos

Sep 18, 2014

A new GSA Bulletin study uses tree rings to document arroyo evolution along the lower Rio Puerco and Chaco Wash in northern New Mexico, USA. By determining burial dates in tree rings from salt cedar and wi ...

User comments : 2

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

orti
2 / 5 (4) Jan 13, 2014
You are fortunate enough (being on the phys.org side of this debate) to be offered a chance to refute. Too bad those on the other side aren't extended the same opportunity (except as commenters).
lobdillj
5 / 5 (1) Jan 14, 2014
Refute what?