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Press Release - Hot topics, cool science: new Antarctic field season underway

Issue date: 19 Dec 2007
Number: 21/2007

Antarctic field season underway
The  British Antarctic Survey (BAS) 2007/08 field season is underway.  The start of the season is marked by the arrival of dozens of scientists – together with tonnes of equipment and fresh supplies – at BAS’s five Antarctic research stations.

 For BAS this is the first Antarctic field season of the International Polar Year (IPY) 2007-2008 – the largest internationally co-ordinated scientific effort for 50 years. BAS is the largest UK player in IPY with involvement in some 50 IPY related projects.

Around a dozen ‘deep field’ science parties will live under canvas for weeks at a time to collect samples or conduct experiments that will give new insight into the Antarctic environment and important global issues like climate change.

One of the most remote and inaccessible field camps is Pine Island Glacier. Around 1,400 km from BAS’s Rothera Research Station four scientists will be use radar and seismic techniques to find out whether the most rapidly thinning glacier on the West Antarctic Ice Sheet could signal an impending collapse.

Early in the New Year, another of this season's most exciting deep field projects gets underway when eight scientists and more than 10 tonnes of equipment are flown in to James Ross Island by HMS Endurance's Lynx helicopters. Once there, the BAS team will attempt to recover the first complete ice core climate record from the northern Peninsula spanning for the Holocene (which began over 10,000 years ago and continues today) to help shed new light on how ice shelves in the region responded to past climate change.

The west coast of the Antarctic Peninsula is one of the fastest warming areas of the planet, temperatures having risen by almost 3oC over the past 50 years. James Ross Island is the only ice cap in the northern Antarctic Peninsula where such a long climate record exists. This ice core, together with information from marine sediment cores, will help scientists state with certainty whether this current rate of warming is unusual.

Conservation biology involving monitoring sea bird and seal populations at Bird Island, Signy and King Edward Point Research Stations will continue to provide data to the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (CCAMLR) Ecosystem Monitoring Programme. This research influences conservation policy and management to maintain the current diversity of the Southern Ocean.

This season scientists will deploy satellite transmitters on king penguins and fur seals to track their movements at sea and understand how they search for food. In addition, the team will weigh fur seal pups at birth to record and monitor their growth. Work on several endangered albatross species will continue at Bird Island to provide information on where the birds go and how to stop their unecessary slaughter.

For BAS’s two ships, 2007/08 will be one of their most ambitious seasons yet. After resupplying BAS’s research stations at Bird Island, King Edward Point, Signy and Rothera, the RRS James Clark Ross will conduct 10 science cruises, including work on the Census of Antarctic Marine Life (CAML) – one of the flagship projects of International Polar Year. BAS is one of 50 institutions from 30 countries involved in CAML, which is investigating the distribution and abundance of Antarctic marine life and how it will be affected by climate change. CAML has already discovered a dozen new species in Antarctic waters.

James Clark Ross will also be carrying out one of the most comprehensive surveys of pelagic life in the Southern Ocean yet seen, examining life cycles and food webs of creatures of all sizes, from microscopic single celled algae to the largest baleen whales. The survey, called DISCOVERY 2010, will span the entire range of Southern Ocean environments, from the ice-edge to the polar front. It will involve 26 scientists from a number of UK and international institutes. Many of the creatures they will study are pushing the limits of what animal physiology can endure. This survey will help determine how vulnerable they are to the predicted changes in this rapidly altering sea region.

As she crosses the Drake Passage between Stanley, Falkland Islands and Rothera Research Station in December, the James Clark Ross will also be deploying a satellite-tracked drifter for the Scottish Association for Marine Science. The buoy is part of a pilot project to evaluate the potential of Iridium satellite technology for collecting real-time data from the network of drifters afloat in the world’s oceans. If successful, the technology will improve monitoring and forecasting of storm surges and hurricanes.

RRS Ernest Shackleton has a different challenge this season: as construction work begins on BAS’s innovative new research station, Halley VI, the Shackleton will act as command and control centre for the unloading of cargo from the 34,000 tonne MV Amderma, which BAS has chartered to cope with the 10-fold increase in cargo that will be delivered to Halley this season. The Shackleton is due to arrive at Halley in late December and a new web cam installed on her conning tower will give visitors to the BAS web site a panoramic, bird’s-eye view of operations.

Whilst the building of Halley VI gets underway, science at Halley V continues with long-term research into atmospheric sciences. Studies at Halley are crucial for a global perspective on ozone reduction, atmospheric pollution, sea level rise, and climate change. January 2008 marks the end of a year-round measurement campaign to study fast reactive chemistry in the lowest layer of the atmosphere. The work is important for understanding climate-sensitive processes (such as the interactions between sea ice and the atmosphere) as well as for the interpretation of chemical signatures in ice cores.

Issued by British Antarctic Survey Press Office
Athena Dinar, British Antarctic Survey – tel: ++44 1223 221414, mob:07740 822229, email: a.dinar@bas.ac.uk
Linda Capper, British Antarctic Survey – tel: ++44 1223 221448, mob: 07714 233744, email: l.capper@bas.ac.uk

Notes to Editors:

British Antarctic Survey is a world leader in research into global issues in an Antarctic context. It is the UK's national operator and is a component of the Natural Environment Research Council. It has an annual budget of around £40 million, runs nine research programmes [link to relevant BAS web pages] and operates five research stations, two Royal Research Ships and five aircraft in and around Antarctica.

International Polar Year 2007–2008 is the largest coordinated international scientific effort for 50 years. BAS is playing a major role in IPY: through its core science programme, scientists from BAS are involved in 50 IPY-endorsed projects, half of which are bi-polar, contributing to around 25% of the global programme and 50% of the UK effort. This contribution makes BAS by far the biggest UK player in IPY 2007-2008.

BAS’s main research station at Rothera is the gateway to “deep-field” science and over the last few weeks, its population has expanded from just 22 winterers to around 130 scientists and support staff.

BAS staff disovered the “ozone hole” in 1985 from long-term data captured at Halley Research Station.