The Antarctic Circumnavigation Expedition (ACE) reached Cape Town on Sunday, 19 March, completing its three-month voyage around the great white continent. But the scientific adventure has only just begun: it’s now time to analyze all the data that was collected. This will improve our understanding of the effects of global warming on the Southern Ocean and the broader implications for our planet as a whole.
On Sunday, 19 March, the Antarctic Circumnavigation Expedition (ACE) reached Cape Town, South Africa. This marked the end of its trek around the southernmost continent, which began in this same port on 20 December 2016. The expedition was organized by the Swiss Polar Institute (SPI) and carried by the Akademik Treshnikov, a Russian research ship. By the end of the three-month voyage, a total of some 150 researchers had carried out 22 projects, selected from 93 proposals.
The overall aim of the projects, which covered fields such as oceanography, climatology and biology, was to learn more about the Southern Ocean. This will help scientists predict how the climate will change in the coming years. The Antarctic region is crucial to the planet’s health for a number of reasons. First, it serves as a major carbon sink. And in addition to influencing weather conditions in the southern hemisphere, the Antarctic continent plays a key role in how the oceans circulate around the world.
“This expedition is a first in several respects,” explained David Walton, the chief scientist on board. “Until now, no one had ever gathered data over an entire season on one expedition or simultaneously conducted land, ocean and atmospheric research. Taken together, these projects will give us a fuller picture of Antarctica and the Southern Ocean.”
Land and ocean research
The researchers looked at a wide range of issues in their effort to identify the effects of climate change. For example, data on how air particles form (aerosols) will be used to study the interaction of the ocean and atmosphere in new ways. And the water-column readings that were taken regularly throughout the expedition will provide researchers with detailed information on chemical changes in the ocean, including salinity levels and whether certain metals are present in the water.
Samples gathered during stops on a number of Sub-Antarctic islands – Marion, Crozet, Kerguelen, Balleny, Scott, Peter I, Diego Ramirez, South Georgia, South Sandwich and Bouvet – will provide key insights into how plant and animal life there evolves and adapts to extreme environments. And data collected by sonars capable of detecting distant sounds will be used to estimate the blue whale population. The sonars showed that the ship was never far from these creatures.