For the first time under-ice and airborne vehicles will be used simultaneously to investigate the impacts of climate change on the sea-ice environment off East Antarctica.
An autonomous, underwater vehicle will measure the thickness of sea-ice floes while a remotely-operated robot will observe the hidden lives of algae and krill that live beneath the ice.
More than 50 scientists, from nine countries leave Hobart today aboard Australia’s icebreaker Aurora Australis
to gather information critical for a greater understanding of the connection between sea ice and Southern Ocean ecosystems.
Science leader Dr Klaus Meiners, from the Australian Antarctic Division and Antarctic Climate and Ecosystems Cooperative Research Centre (ACE CRC) said there are many, integrated projects looking at the physical and biological elements of the Antarctic sea-ice zone.
“Scientists will collect a range of complex measurements and data to help us understand the different processes affecting the region’s ecosystem during spring, when the sea ice is at its maximum extent.”
Dr Meiners said that while reliable data exists on the extent of sea-ice cover, measuring the thickness of Antarctic sea ice had been much more difficult.
“This information is essential in providing an accurate picture of the overall changes in the amount of sea ice. Data collected during the voyage will be used to improve satellite estimates of sea-ice thickness, and to provide input to sea-ice models.”
Work will begin at the sea-ice edge and aim to penetrate the entire pack-ice zone towards the coastal fast ice. Multi-day research stations will be set up on suitable ice floes and GPS equipment will help with positioning the various platforms on, above and below ice that is constantly moving.
“Researchers will also be using instruments mounted in a helicopter to take ice and snow thickness measurements, and ice-core data will be collected on the surface of the ice,” Dr Meiners said.
The Australian Antarctic Division’s Acting Chief Scientist, Dr Tas van Ommen, says that Antarctic sea-ice zone is an important driver and indicator of global climate processes, with its annual freezing and melting thought to be one of the largest seasonal cycles on Earth.
Measuring the effects of climate change on sea ice is very difficult as satellite imagery mainly provides a measure of the amount of ocean the ice is covering, but gives little indication of whether the ice is thinning or changing in other important ways.
“In the Arctic there were major changes in ice thickness detected prior to the onset of the substantial reductions in sea ice we see there now each summer.
“SIPEX 2 will establish these measurements for Antarctica and help us track these changes in the future,” Dr van Ommen said.
The seven-week voyage - Sea Ice Physics and Ecosystem eXperiment (SIPEX-2) – is a continuation and extension of SIPEX-1, which took place in September-October 2007 and is jointly coordinated by the Australian Antarctic Division and ACE CRC.
SIPEX 2 - which brings together scientists from Australia, Belgium, Canada, France, Germany, Japan, New Zealand and the United States - kicks off a busy 2012/13 polar season of Australian and international collaborative research.
Around 550 expeditioners will travel south this season as part of Australia’s Antarctic program, departing Hobart for Casey, Davis, Mawson and Macquarie Island stations and remote off-station locations.
Follow science reporter Dr Wendy Pyper
on board Aurora Australis for SIPEX-II.