22 September, 2017 News stories

Today the royal research ship RRS Discovery will depart Southampton for an ambitious science expedition to the ocean around South Georgia. This expedition will take place almost 100 years after scientists onboard the original RRS Discovery, first used by Captain Robert Falcon Scott, began a series of investigations in the same area that laid the foundations of modern biological oceanography.

This expedition will be key to dramatically improving our understanding of how the climate is affected by life in the ‘twilight’ zone, the part of the ocean between 100- 1000 metres, which only a small amount of sunlight reaches. Small creatures in the twilight zone catch and intercept material sinking from the sea surface, leading to the carbon in this material being stored in the ocean rather than in the atmosphere. The science programme, called the COMICS project, will involve catching sinking material as well as investigating the tiny plants and animals that store carbon in the ocean. The region around South Georgia contains some of the largest and most intense blooms of ocean life found anywhere in the world. This means this programme will be sampling a real global hotspot of ocean biological carbon storage.

Lantern fish are one species living in the ‘twilight’ zone

Principal investigator of the COMICS project, Professor Richard Sanders from the National Oceanography Centre (NOC), says:

“As an ocean biologist I am really excited to be returning to South Georgia onboard the Discovery for the first time since the Discovery Investigations took place. It is amazing to think how far ocean biology has come since those investigations, which took place less than one hundred years ago.”

Both the original Discovery Investigations and this expedition are focused on answering some really fundamental questions. A better understanding of the movement of carbon in the ocean’s twilight zone is really vital for understanding many aspects of oceanography, as well as the climate.”

Zooplankton ecologist Professor Geraint Tarling from British Antarctic Survey, who will be joining the science expedition says:

“The Discovery Expeditions laid the foundations to modern day biological oceanography and the data and samples they collected 100 years ago remain crucial to understanding how our oceans are changing. We are excited to be part of this project which will obtain some of the most detailed insights yet obtained into how organisms function in the twilight zone.”

The original Discovery Expeditions visited South Georgia almost 100 years ago and many of the specimens collected are at the Natural History Museum in London

It is currently known that the efficiency of carbon transport from the atmosphere through the twilight zone is key to regulating atmospheric CO2 levels. However, the processes that control the efficiency of biological storage of carbon in the deep ocean are not well known, which is an obstacle to predicting how they may change. By investigating carbon dynamics in the ocean interior, COMICS will help to improve predictions of future global climate change.

The COMICS project is led by the NOC and is a collaboration between the British Antarctic Survey and the universities of Queen Mary London, Liverpool, Oxford and Southampton. The project has received funding from the Natural Environmental Research Council (NERC).