Antarctica's icy frontier
In January 2019, a Dutch marine charity, the Flotilla Foundation, is due to send a major international expedition to Antarctica with the aim of exploring the remote, harsh and little studied Weddell Sea, one of the most pristine marine ecosystems in the world.
The Weddell Sea Expedition will bring together world-leading glaciologists, marine biologists, oceanographers and marine archaeologists on the S.A. Agulhas II, one of the largest and most modern polar research vessels in the world.
The aims of the expedition are to investigate the ice shelves around the Weddell Sea – in particular, the Larsen C Ice Shelf from which a giant iceberg broke off in July 2017 – to document the rich and diverse marine ecosystem in the western Weddell Sea, and to attempt to locate and survey the wreck of Sir Ernest Shackleton’s ship Endurance which was crushed by the ice and sank in 1915.
The Weddell Sea was discovered almost 200 years ago in February 1823 by the British sailor and navigator James Weddell. Since then, only very few expedition ships have ever sailed so far south because of the difficulties in penetrating the thick pack ice which covers the sea throughout the year. However, the study of ice shelves around the Weddell Sea is timely and of vital importance because they affect the mass-balance and stability of the Antarctic Ice Sheet, as well as worldwide ocean current circulation. Ice shelves buttress and restrain ice flowing from the interior of the continent. If ice shelves thin, or break up and retreat, then ice flow from inland accelerates, and more ice mass is lost, contributing to global sea-level rise. Melting at the base of ice shelves and calved icebergs also release fresh water, which can inhibit the generation of very dense Antarctic bottom water, one of the major drivers of the thermohaline circulation of the oceans.
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