A major international sea ice research program kicks off the Australian Antarctic Division’s (AAD) busy 2003/04 summer science schedule with the sailing today of the resupply vessel Aurora Australis.

Dr Sharman Stone, the Parliamentary Secretary for the Antarctic, said that the sea ice research was a collaborative effort between scientific institutes from Australia, Belgium, China, Germany, Japan and the USA. It will be carried out in pack ice north-east of Australia’s Casey station in Antarctica.

“It will also be the first major project involving the newly-established Australian Antarctic Climate and Ecosystems Cooperative Research Centre (ACE CRC),” Dr Stone said.

“Scientists will undertake a detailed study of the sea ice to gain a better understanding of the transfer of energy between the ocean and atmosphere that drives climate. Sea ice also affects ocean circulation and ocean ecosystems,” she said.

“The sea ice experiment is to validate and improve the interpretation of data collected from recently-launched satellite sensors.

“Data from the satellite sensors can help estimate sea ice extent and concentration, snow depth on sea ice, snow/ice temperature and other properties,” Dr Stone said.

The chief scientist for the voyage, Dr Rob Massom of the ACE CRC, said that measurements made in conjunction with satellite passes would be taken from the ship and from helicopters over an experimental area of about 75kms by 100kms.

“En route to the ice, weekly samples collected from sediment traps moored above the ocean floor will be recovered, checked and reset. These traps collect a record of particles that sink from the surface to the deep ocean,” Dr Massom said.

“Understanding this process is important because it helps control carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere and affects the relations between surface and deep ecosystems,” he said.

Aurora Australis will also be taking next season’s expeditioners to Casey and bringing home those who have spent the winter there.

Dr Stone said that today marked the departure of the first of seven voyages this season to Australia’s Antarctic stations.