Voyage to uncover Antarctic secrets
Fri, 14 Sep 2012 3:53p.m.
By David Beniuk
Scientists from nine countries are about to undertake the most comprehensive study of Antarctic sea ice on a voyage that could yield vital information about climate change.
Fifty researchers will leave Hobart with a collection of cutting edge technology to help measure sea ice thickness and study the ecology which exists below the floes around Antarctica.
The east of the frozen continent is likely to resemble a scene from Star Wars' frozen planet Hoth, when robots are used above and below the surface of the ice to help collect data.
"This will certainly be the most comprehensive voyage we've done to actually study sea ice in total, in terms of the relationship of the physics to the ecology," Australian Antarctic Division (AAD) acting chief scientist Dr Tas van Ommen told reporters on Friday as the organisation's ice-breaker Aurora Australis prepared to leave.
As well as helicopters fitted with laser scanners and radar, the team will use two robots, one of them a submarine that will measure ice thickness from below.
The scientists aim to fill a gap in their knowledge about trends in ice thickness, which is difficult to gauge from satellite images.
"We don't see any strong changes in the actual extent of the sea ice at the moment, but we really have no knowledge of whether the thickness is changing, as in fact it did in the Arctic for a long time before we saw the extent of changes," Dr van Ommen said.
The team is equally excited about the ecological possibilities the trip will provide.
The underwater robot will be able to collect data on algae that feeds krill and is therefore the basis of a food chain that also links seals, penguins and whales.
The seven-week expedition known as the "Sea Ice Physics and Ecosystem eXperiment" - or SIPEX-2 - builds on the SIPEX-1 voyage of 2007 and is coordinated by the AAD and Antarctic Climate and Ecosystems Cooperative Research Centre.
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