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First Antarctic Science Mission on Polar Ship Departs

20th November 2023
The brand new UK polar research ship RRS Sir David Attenborough in sea ice
The brand new UK polar research ship RRS Sir David Attenborough in sea ice Credit: Jamie Anderson

A team of 12 marine scientists onboard the brand new UK polar research ship, RRS Sir David Attenborough, set sail on 20 November to Antarctica to study the impact of environmental changes on Antarctic ecosystems and sea ice. The results of their study will help scientists understand how the Southern Ocean is being affected by global warming and its consequences on the animals living there, such as krill, copepods, whales, and penguins.

The team, which includes physicists, ecologists, and biogeochemists, will be investigating how the upper ocean changes in response to the annual melt of sea ice. The research is of utmost importance as polar ecosystems play a pivotal role in regulating cycles of carbon and nutrients, both in the Southern Ocean and across the world via ocean circulation.

During the ten-day mission, the researchers will deploy Autonomous Underwater Vehicles (AUVs) below vast areas of free-floating sea ice, which play a crucial role in the global carbon cycle. The £9m BIOPOLE project is the first official science cruise of the RRS Sir David Attenborough, and the team will be putting the ship's full capabilities to the test.

First sea ice encountered on the RRS David Attenborough Photo: Rich TurnerFirst sea ice encountered on the RRS David Attenborough Photo: Rich Turner

The BIOPOLE cruise will also include hydrographic surveys and using BONGO and mammoth nets to collect zooplankton. The Controlled Temperature Lab on the ship will be used to investigate the size and growth of copepod lipid sacs, which are a source of food for creatures and a critical part of the carbon cycle.

The team will deploy three autonomous underwater gliders, two of which have autonomous under-ice navigation modules. This will allow the gliders to travel 20-30 km under the ice and collect data over a longer period and wider geographical area. The research will help scientists better understand how the Southern Ocean is being affected by environmental change and could have significant implications for the future of the planet.

The BIOPOLE cruise will also be monitoring the visible, record-breaking low in sea ice extent experienced during the last Southern winter. By gaining improved knowledge of the polar ecosystem, scientists hope to have a better understanding of how to mitigate the effects of environmental change on the planet.

A copepod (an adult female Calanus propinquus) from the water column above the Bellingshausen Sea continental shelf. Photo: BASA copepod (an adult female Calanus propinquus) from the water column above the Bellingshausen Sea continental shelf. Photo: BAS

Published in Marine Science Team

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Marine Science Perhaps it is the work of the Irish research vessel RV Celtic Explorer out in the Atlantic Ocean that best highlights the essential nature of marine research, development and sustainable management, through which Ireland is developing a strong and well-deserved reputation as an emerging centre of excellence. From Wavebob Ocean energy technology to aquaculture to weather buoys and oil exploration these pages document the work of Irish marine science and how Irish scientists have secured prominent roles in many European and international marine science bodies.


At A Glance – Ocean Facts

  • 71% of the earth’s surface is covered by the ocean
  • The ocean is responsible for the water cycle, which affects our weather
  • The ocean absorbs 30% of the carbon dioxide added to the atmosphere by human activity
  • The real map of Ireland has a seabed territory ten times the size of its land area
  • The ocean is the support system of our planet.
  • Over half of the oxygen we breathe was produced in the ocean
  • The global market for seaweed is valued at approximately €5.4 billion
  • · Coral reefs are among the oldest ecosystems in the world — at 230 million years
  • 1.9 million people live within 5km of the coast in Ireland
  • Ocean waters hold nearly 20 million tons of gold. If we could mine all of the gold from the ocean, we would have enough to give every person on earth 9lbs of the precious metal!
  • Aquaculture is the fastest growing food sector in the world – Ireland is ranked 7th largest aquaculture producer in the EU
  • The Atlantic Ocean is the second largest ocean in the world, covering 20% of the earth’s surface. Out of all the oceans, the Atlantic Ocean is the saltiest
  • The Pacific Ocean is the largest ocean in the world. It’s bigger than all the continents put together
  • Ireland is surrounded by some of the most productive fishing grounds in Europe, with Irish commercial fish landings worth around €200 million annually
  • 97% of the earth’s water is in the ocean
  • The ocean provides the greatest amount of the world’s protein consumed by humans
  • Plastic affects 700 species in the oceans from plankton to whales.
  • Only 10% of the oceans have been explored.
  • 8 million tonnes of plastic enter the ocean each year, equal to dumping a garbage truck of plastic into the ocean every minute.
  • 12 humans have walked on the moon but only 3 humans have been to the deepest part of the ocean.

(Ref: Marine Institute)

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