Into the wild of Antarctica: Scientists, robots and ‘pancake ice’

Al Jazeera follows 55 scientists conducting 22 science research projects in Antarctica.

A team uses hand-held drilling gear to sample a solid ice core [Tarek Bazley/Al Jazeera]
A team uses hand-held drilling gear to sample a solid ice core [Tarek Bazley/Al Jazeera]

Antarctica – After 12 hours breaking through pack ice, passing groups of penguins and seals on the ice flow, and tracked by pods of Minke whales, we arrive at the edge of the great southern continent.

This part of the Antarctic coastline is the windiest place on the planet at sea level and, as we pull alongside the towering ice cliffs in the Russian research ship Akademik Treshnikov, we are whipped and buffeted by the winds’ ferocity.

These winds sweep down from the East Antarctic plateau, bringing freezing dry air to the coast and driving snow and ice into the sea.

READ MORE: Braving 15m-high waves on board Antarctica research vessel

The following morning the wind has abated and with blue skies and sunshine, the same giant ice cliffs have a meringue-like appearance.

These walls of ice are the edges of glaciers, which stretch more than 40km from land out over the ocean. Cracked and crevassed, chunks of ice periodically calve from these glaciers, forming icebergs that are driven offshore by wind and current.

As we sail along the coast, we pass a number of these.

Some are the size of basketball courts; others are tens of kilometres in length. Above the water, the icebergs are up to 100m high; beneath the waves some are more than five times as deep.

The ship’s captain spots a sheltered cove and, after careful inspection, runs the bow of the ship up against the ice [Tarek Bazley/Al Jazeera]

We make our way to the face of the Mertz Glacier, which experienced an extraordinary calving event in 2010-11 when a 75km-long by 35km-wide glacier piece broke away.

The scientists on board are eager to know what effect this has had on marine life, and whether such a dramatic event can be linked to climate change.

To do this, they plan to moor the ship alongside the glacier’s face, then launch a remote-controlled unmanned submarine beneath its tongue.

The ship’s captain spots a sheltered cove and, after careful inspection, runs the bow of the ship up against the ice.

It puts the front deck of the vessel just a few metres above the cliff top, and gives us extraordinary views of the ice cliffs and the snow on top.

Ice-core sampling

Making the most of near-perfect weather, the teams of scientists spring into action. An ice-core sampling team is flown in the two helicopters on board to a spot inland, where they use hand-held drilling gear to sample a solid ice core to a depth of 20m.

From this they are able to get historical data telling them about changes to climate, rainfall and the composition of air bubbles trapped in the ice.

Bristling with cameras, robotic arms and other equipment, the sub looks like something out of a science-fiction film [Tarek Bazley/Al Jazeera]

It’s a rare opportunity to take ice cores in this part of the world, and the team arrive back late in the evening – it’s still light at midnight at this time of year – with a box full of precious cores that will be kept in a freezer, then transported back to their labs for analysis.

The submarine, run by the Canadian company ROBOS, is launched from the side of the ship using a crane. Bristling with HD cameras, lights, robotic arms and sampling equipment, the sub looks like something out of
a science-fiction film.

A four-man team is needed to run it, and they drive it from a purpose-built control room inside a shipping container on deck.

Here, a wall of displays shows images and data from the craft as it descends, piloted by an array of joysticks and buttons.

A four-man team drive the submarine from a purpose-built control room inside a shipping container on deck [Tarek Bazley/Al Jazeera]

The sub disappears from the surface into the deep blue waters, but this first dive doesn’t go according to plan.

The scientists had been planning to explore the face of the ice cliff as it drops to a depth of 500m, and then pilot the craft under the glacier, taking water and ice samples along the way. But the cliff face suddenly disappears, revealing an enormous cave, carved into the ice.

The team drive the submarine 100m into the cave, but are unable to see where it ends or how deep it runs.
They also detect high levels of melt water – fresh water that is likely to have come from the ice.

It’s not clear if the cave or the levels of fresh water are linked to a global warming, but they are unexpected.

An error on board the sub forces the team to cut the dive short. The next day they will have more success.

Pancake ice

Throughout the twilight night – during which the sun dips beneath the horizon for just a few hours – it remains clear and cold.

I head out to the foredeck to film early in the morning and find it is -7C with a brisk breeze off the ice. The wind blows snow and ice off the cliff edge down into the water.

The sea here is just above -2C and as the snow and ice hit the water it forms what’s known as pancake ice – beautiful rounded discs of ice – clumped together near the ship’s hull; another example of how this extreme environment produces extreme beauty. 

Al Jazeera English Science and Technology editor Tarek Bazley is part of an international science research expedition circumnavigating Antarctica.

Follow the expedition and find Bazley’s location here.

As the snow and ice hit the water they form what is known as pancake ice [Tarek Bazley/Al Jazeera]
Source : Al Jazeera


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