ANTARCTIC BLOG: Ocean meets air #1

23 December, 2015

Welcome to my blog. My name is Thomas Barningham and I’m currently in the third year of my PhD at the University of East Anglia. My work aims to understand the underlying biogeochemical processes that drive the Southern Ocean carbon cycle by establishing a fully automated, continuous atmospheric O2 and CO2 measurement system at Halley Research Station, Antarctica in collaboration with Anna Jones at British Antarctic Survey. I’ve spent the last two years building and testing my equipment in Norwich and now I’m on my way to install it.

Travel to Halley Part I: Cape Town to Bouvet Island – 10Dec2015

It has been a week now since we first arrived in Cape Town. After a couple of days of waiting around for the final tank load of fuel, we finally set sail on the RRS Ernest Shackleton on 5 December. Everyone was full of excitement. All were out on deck enjoying the views of Cape Town, waving goodbye to the beautiful Table Mountain and contemplating the journey ahead – a full 15 days (at least) at sea across the treacherous Southern Ocean, famed for its big swells and strong westerly winds. As the southern tip of Africa grew smaller in the distance, we were lucky enough to see the odd dolphin, seal and, for a moment, a humpback whale breaching out towards the horizon.

Cape Town, South Africa overlooked by Table Mountain


The ship’s course was set south-south-west to Bouvet Island (or Bouvetoya, to give it its Norwegian name) at 54°3’ South, 3°3’ East. This small volcanic island sits atop the southern end of the mid Atlantic ridge. Permanently covered in a glacier, the island is famed for two things: Firstly, it wins the title of being the most remote island on the planet – the furthest from any single landmass in all directions, the closest two being Africa: 1600 miles to the north and Antarctica: 1100 miles to the south. Despite its remote location, the island has still managed to infiltrate the cultural psyche of the western world by being the setting for the film “Alien vs Predator”, where a few crazy scientists set out to examine a strange heat anomaly out towards the Antarctic…

Thomas Barningham on his way to Halley Research Station

We were scheduled to reach the island in 6 or 7 days’ time, at which point we’d turn directly south and begin making our way into the sea ice. The first two days brought us calm, sunny weather and steady seas. However, Sunday night saw us cross the 40° South latitude line and on Monday morning there was a distinct chill to the air; the winds had gotten stronger and the waves more rolling. The winds in this latitude band are affectionately known as the furious forties, but despite our location, we were reassured the current swell wasn’t much to shout about. That said, a few people did begin to feel the effects of sea seasickness – I was lucky on the other hand!

The next day the winds picked up further and the ship really began to be tossed about. Alex and I took our seats at the top of the ship near the Bridge and enjoyed the scene: three to four metre swells, relentlessly rolling in from the west, crashing into the ship and spraying anyone who happened to miss-time their morning stroll out on deck. I was loving every minute. As we watched the waves roll in, Wandering and Sooty Albatross would swoop low towards the waves before catching a turbulent updraft created by the ship, using it to soar up above us, before repeating the whole process. Prions would dart about the crests of the waves too; nippy little things, appearing to be chased by the Albatross. Alex, also from UEA, is along on this trip to help me with the installation of my equipment. He wrote the software that allows the instruments to speak to the computer and vice versa. He has years of experience dealing with measurement systems similar to my own and will be invaluable to have around during the initial build. Plus he’s a good laugh, has a mean streak when it comes to card games and enjoys the odd wee dram – the perfect companion for a voyage to the Antarctic.

RRS Ernest Shackleton loading cargo at Maire Harbour, Falkland Islands
RRS Ernest Shackleton loading cargo

By Wednesday, the previous day’s storm had calmed and we were back to a gentler swell which has carried on into today – Thursday. We are scheduled to pass Bouvet Island tonight, which unfortunately means it will be too dark to see. The next leg of our journey takes us into the sea ice and the relative stability it brings. As far as our journey across the treacherous Southern Ocean is concerned, we’ve gotten away with it pretty lightly (which brings a little disappointment to me – if it is at all possible to feel disappointment on a trip like this… but a great deal of relief to others!) Although no icebergs have been spotted yet, the night search light is out so as not to repeat any infamous mistakes….Onwards we go.