23 November, 2015 Press releases

New season tackles ambitious science and logistical challenges

The British Antarctic Survey (BAS) 2015/16 field season is underway with dozens of scientists and support staff – together with planes and tonnes of equipment and fresh supplies – arriving at BAS’s five Antarctic research stations.

This year’s science and operational campaigns involve over 250 scientists from BAS, the UK and international research institutions.  Major international collaborations utilise specially equipped Twin Otter aircraft to capture new data that will advance understanding about the future stability of a key Antarctic ice shelf and to generate new knowledge about the Earth’s gravitational field from an area that cannot be surveyed by satellites.

BAS Twin Otter tethered to the ice
The BAS Twin Otter aircraft

Biological research campaigns on board the RRS James Clark Ross and at Rothera Research Station focus on biodiversity and how plants and animals adapt to a changing polar environment. Preparation work on the relocation of Halley Research Station begins this year.

British Antarctic Survey Director, Professor Jane Francis, says:

“This year we have an exciting and challenging programme of science and logistics in Antarctica. Our teams are looking forward to making their contribution to the global research effort to answer some big questions about our changing planet. Our research collaborations take years of operational planning to ensure that we have the right people at the right place at the right time. This year I am particularly pleased Germany’s Alfred Wegener Institute and the European Space Agency are partnering with us to take forward some very big scientific campaigns. It’s exciting too that we are making preparations to move our Halley Research Station – the station has a re-locatable design to cope with life on a floating ice shelf – this will be the first time that we put it through its paces. ”

The year’s projects include:

  • Investigating the Filchner Ice Shelf System. This is the season’s biggest and most complex science project and includes over 25 scientists, engineers and polar guides who are using a range of geophysical techniques to investigate the ice shelf as part of Earth’s system and how it interacts with the atmosphere and ocean. Five field parties will live under canvas, supported by a team on the German research vessel Polarstern to understand better how this ice shelf might contribute to future sea level rise.
  • Major flying campaigns using BAS Twin Otters. A campaign of 100 hours of collecting data out of Halley Research Station will explore the relationship between clouds and radiation to create more robust climate models. In addition, a collaboration with the European Space Agency, will involve researchers flying over the South Pole to fill in the polar hole in satellite gravity coverage and shed light on the ice sheet, geology and geophysics of the region.
  • Relocation of Halley Research Station – ‘Earth’s window into space’. Plans are underway to move the station upstream on the Brunt Ice Shelf – the first time the station has been moved since opening in 2012. The delivery of heavy duty vehicles, major equipment and temporary accommodation units will enable a support team to relocate the station during the 2016/17 season. The RRS Ernest Shackleton will deliver essential cargo to Halley, travelling nearly 20,000 nautical miles, throughout the short season.
  • Major science cruises on RRS James Clark Ross. The SO-AntEco cruise, involving scientists from 16 research institutes and nine countries, will investigate the diversity of the marine ecosystem both inside and outside of a Marine Protected Area near the South Orkney Islands. In addition, oceanographers will deploy robotic underwater gliders from the ship to capture information about how the ocean circulation is changing around West Antarctica.
A stunning evening at the start of winter - photo Tom Welsh
The sun returns to Halley Research Station

A summary of this season’s projects:

Understanding the Filchner Ice Shelf System

Five teams will camp under canvas across the east side of the Antarctic Peninsula, and use a variety of techniques to investigate the Filchner Ice Shelf including hot water drilling, sediment coring, seismics, ground radar measurements and an airborne survey from a BAS Twin Otter plane (over 60 flying hours), to collect new data from this region that will provide more reliable projections on how this region will contribute to sea level rise over the 21st century.

In collaboration with the German Antarctic Institute the Alfred Wegener Institute, two further science parties will undertake research from the polar research vessel Polarstern, with the deployment of instrumented buoys and the collection of marine sediment cores.

Investigating the fragility of the last remaining Larsen Ice Shelf

At the nearby Larsen C ice shelf, a group of scientists will hot water drill through the ice to deploy instruments to sample the melt rate at the base. Neighbouring Larsen B disintegrated in 2002, so scientists are exploring how Larsen C is responding to recent warming temperatures.

Around the Ellsworth Mountains and the southern Antarctic Peninsula, two teams of researchers will use GPS measurements to measure ice mass to better predict how much ice is being lost today.

Both projects will provide a clearer picture of how much ice is currently draining from the West Antarctic ice Sheet and help to predict with more certainty how it may contribute to future sea level rise.

Geology reveals the past

A team of geologists will collect geological specimens from the Marie Byrd Region to produce a high resolution record of the thinning of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet over the last 20,000 years.

How Antarctic life adapts to change

Scientists will continue to collect long-term data on the micro-environment at different terrestrial habitats close to Rothera Research Station. These data provide a detailed picture of patterns in how microbial, plant and invertebrate communities are adapting to changing environmental conditions on the Antarctic Peninsula.

In addition, long-term data is collected on the Rothera Research Station marine ecosystem and how it is adapting to changing environmental conditions such as a warming ocean and ocean acidification.

Sustainable ecosystems for a healthy planet

Conservation biology focussed on seabird, penguin and seal populations breeding at Bird Island and King Edward Point at South Georgia and at Signy at the South Orkney Islands will capture data for the Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (CCAMLR) Ecosystem Monitoring Programme. This long-term monitoring influences policy and management to help maintain the current biological diversity of the Southern Ocean.

Scientists will study a recently discovered emperor penguin colony located near to Rothschild Island; this is one of 54 known colonies and one of the more northerly colonies in Antarctica. The international team will track where the birds search for food, as well as determining probable moult site locations. In addition, BAS cartographers will fly over other penguin colonies across the northern Antarctic Peninsula to create a census of penguin population numbers.

Collaboration at the South Pole

As part of an international collaboration with the European Space Agency, researchers will fly over the South Pole to fill the ‘polar hole’ in satellite gravity coverage. This new data will shed light on the ice sheet, geology and geophysics of this region that is missed by current satellite monitoring.

Ship-borne research and logistics

For BAS’s two ships, the RRS James Clark Ross and RRS Ernest Shackleton, 2015/16 will be one of their most ambitious seasons yet. After re-supplying BAS’s research stations at Bird Island, King Edward Point, Signy and Rothera after the long Antarctic winter, the RRS James Clark Ross will conduct seven science cruises, including a joint project involving scientists from nine different countries and 16 institutes. The SO-AntEco cruise will investigate the diversity of life both inside and outside the South Orkney Islands Southern Shelf Marine Protected Area in order to better understand the distribution and composition of the seafloor communities around these islands. Understanding where animals live, including species such as corals and sponges which are vulnerable to fisheries impacts and to other human disturbance, will help us to manage the region’s natural resources into the future.

RRS James Clark Ross will also be helping researchers to investigate krill-based ecosystems to understand where Antarctic krill is abundant, and how fish, penguins and seals find it and prey upon it. The results from this study will support fisheries management decisions related to the fishery for krill which is managed by CCAMLR.

RRS Ernest Shackleton will travel nearly 20,000 nautical miles as it re-supplies Halley Research station three times during its very short summer season.

Atmospheric studies

Atmospheric studies at Halley research station continue with long-term research into atmospheric sciences and space weather. Studies at Halley are crucial for a global perspective on ozone reduction, atmospheric pollution, sea level rise, climate change and space weather.

A major project supported from Halley is investigating the microphysics of Antarctic clouds. A team of scientists will spend around 100 hours over a month flying a BAS Twin Otter aircraft in the clouds to collect data on their physical properties. The team hopes to understand better how clouds interact with radiation and in turn produce more accurate climate models.

Re-location of Halley Research Station

In addition to the busy field season, plans are underway to re-locate Halley Research Station. Major equipment, vehicles and temporary camp facilities will be delivered in the next few months in preparation for moving the station several kilometres upstream during the 2016/17 season. This move is the first time that the station has been moved since it became operational in 2012. Long-term monitoring of the natural forces that affect the ice shelf has revealed new growth in a chasm that has been dormant for around 35 years. This chasm is currently seven kilometres from the station, so the move is a precautionary measure.

Halley is located on the Brunt Ice Shelf, which is 150 m thick, flows at a rate of 0.4 km per year northwest towards the sea where, at irregular intervals, it calves off as vast icebergs. Halley was designed and engineered specifically to be relocated in response to the ice.

International Collaborations

There are collaborations this season with over 60 research institutes nationally and internationally.