Southern Ocean plankton surveys are blooming

Since 1991 the Southern Ocean Continuous Plankton Recorder Survey (SO-CPR) has been monitoring changes in plankton distribution patterns, as an early warning indicator of changes in the health of Southern Ocean ecosystems.

The survey was initiated by Australian Antarctic Division scientists and initially operated between Hobart and Australia’s three Antarctic stations. Since 1999 tows have also been conducted from Japanese research vessels, during resupply of Syowa station and other opportunistic voyages. In 2004, Germany joined the survey effort with tows from their research vessel, Polarstern, between Cape Town and Antarctica.

The importance of this work in detecting and monitoring natural and human-induced changes in the biological systems of the Southern Ocean was acknowledged in 2006, when the international Scientific Committee on Antarctic Science (SCAR) formally recognised the SO-CPR Survey as an official SCAR project. The Committee also established an Action Group on CPR research to oversee the development and expansion of the CPR Survey in Antarctica, and help to improve access for users of the data.

Already, New Zealand has joined the Survey, with tows between New Zealand and the Ross Sea, and the British Antarctic Survey is towing CPRs in the South Atlantic, to South Georgia and South Orkney. This extends the Survey range from Drake Passage east to Ross Sea, or about 70% of the Southern Ocean.

The Australian Antarctic Division is also working with France to add l’Astrolabe to the CPR fleet, in support of both SO-CPR and AusCPR. By the end of the International Polar Year in 2009, we plan to include the South American chapter of the Census of Antarctic Marine Life — the consortium of Brazil, Uruguay, Argentina, Chile, Peru and Ecuador — as regular CPR partners. The United States has also expressed its interest in towing CPRs.