Spring voyage has sea ice in its sights

Scientists taking measurements on an ice floe during the previous sipex voyage in 2007.
Scientists taking measurements along a 'transect' on an ice floe during the previous SIPEX voyage in 2007. (Photo: Tony Worby)
A satellite image overlaid with the locations of measurements, instrument deployment and aerial surveys.

4 September 2012

Most people think of ice as a refreshing addition to a summer-time drink, or a great surface on which to skate, but did you know that ice, and in particular Antarctic ice, is an incredibly complex and enigmatic substance? In fact, I am about to meet 50 scientists who have devoted much of their lives to studying and understanding the role of sea ice in the global ecosystem.

In 10 days time these scientists will converge on Australia’s Antarctic icebreaking ship, Aurora Australis, for a seven-week voyage in the sea ice zone off East Antarctica (115–125 °E to be precise). Many people are arriving in Hobart (Tasmania) now from around Australia and overseas – from 8 countries in fact; United States, Germany, France, New Zealand, Switzerland, Japan, Belgium and Canada. I’m lucky enough to be travelling with them as the voyage media officer, and it’s my job to document in print and film what the scientists will be doing in this isolated and unpredictable environment.

The occasion for this meeting of minds is the Sea Ice Physics and Ecosystem eXperiment (SIPEX); a complex scientific and logistic effort to study every aspect of the sea ice zone. This is the second SIPEX voyage – the first was conducted in 2007 as part of the International Polar Year and you can read blogs and daily reports on the voyage website.

This second voyage (SIPEX-II) will see many of the original scientists return, but there will be plenty of new faces as well. The international team will conduct some of the same experiments from the first voyage, but now, with more experience under their belts, the scientists have devised many new and improved experiments.

The main aim of SIPEX-II is to estimate snow cover and sea ice thickness and distribution in East Antarctica at small (via ice floe measurements) and regional (via airborne ice surveys) scales, and to better understand the importance of sea ice for the growth and distribution of sea ice algae and Antarctic krill. This information will help scientists assess the likely impacts of climate change on the physical and biological elements of the East Antarctic sea ice zone.

To achieve this aim the team has assembled a range of cutting-edge research tools including underwater robots, helicopters and krill traps. Stay tuned for more details about this research when the voyage gets underway, but if you want more now you can read a brief overview in Antarctic scientists take high-tech approach to sea ice studies.

Our voyage is departing in early spring as this is a time of near-maximum sea ice extent and the return of the sun after winter darkness – which stimulates the growth of sea ice algae, which in turn provide food for krill.

In the meantime, our pre-departure training will soon begin and I’m about to meet my travelling companions for the next 50 days.