Searching for Endurance: SA ship begins Antarctic expedition
Team will investigate one of the last pristine wildernesses - and hopefully solve a century-old mystery
SA scientists aboard an SA ship have officially set off on an international Antarctic expedition that will peer beneath the ice to study one of the world’s last pristine wilderness areas – and possibly locate a legendary ship lost there more than a century ago.
The SA Agulhas II, considered one of the world’s top research ships, set off from Penguin Bukta in Antarctica on New Year’s Day on a 45-day voyage to survey remote stretches of the sea floor at depths of more than 3km.
Scientists will deploy autonomous underwater vehicles (AUVs) and a remotely operated underwater vehicle (ROV) to gather data and search for the wreck of Sir Ernest Shackleton’s ship Endurance, which was crushed by ice and sank in the Weddell Sea in 1915. The expedition includes several scientists from the University of Cape Town, Nelson Mandela University and the South African Environmental Observation Network.
“It is an incredibly exciting time as we depart Penguin Bukta and embark on our journey to the Larsen C Ice Shelf with all the team on board the Agulhas II, to begin one of the most important, nongovernmental scientific expeditions in Antarctica for two decades,” said expedition leader John Shears this week. “This is the first time an expedition of this scale will use such advanced technology to investigate and explore one of the most remote, and least studied, places on our planet to gain invaluable scientific data on the region and enhance the world’s understanding of the Weddell Sea.”
Expedition prospects rely largely on the state-of-the-art technology aboard the SA Agulhas II, bought by the SA government in 2012 and managed by the department of environmental affairs.
The ice breaker allows scientists to study not only animal life beneath the ice but the ice itself, to see how it has changed over the years.
Of particular interest is sea ice thickness in the Weddell Sea, which is witnessing instability of ice shelves surrounding the Antarctic ice sheet – a phenomenon linked to climate change. Environment department spokesperson Zolile Nqayi said scientists based at the SA Antarctic base at Vesleskarvet had left on Wednesday to join the expedition. “It is quite a variety of things they will be doing,” Nqayi said.
Shackleton’s attempt to lead the first overland trans-Antarctic expedition ended in disaster in January 1915 when his ship stuck fast in an ice floe, and later sunk.
The crew were able to escape after salvaging what they could of their provisions and equipment. Although the wreck location is known, it has never been found.
African Marine Solutions, which manages the Agulhas II on behalf of the environment department, said the expedition was the first to attempt such a detailed study of the ice “from beneath”, a feat made possible by recent technological advancement.
“Antarctica has about 1.5 million square kilometres of floating ice shelves, which have been surveyed and studied from above, but only very rarely from beneath,” Amsol said.
“Many of these ice shelves are thinning and retreating rapidly, making scientific investigations here very timely. The Larsen A and B ice shelves collapsed suddenly in a matter of weeks in 1995 and 2002, respectively, and one of the biggest iceberg calving events ever recorded took place from Larsen C Ice Shelf in July 2017.
“Ice shelves are of particular scientific interest because they are susceptible both to atmospheric warming from above and ocean warming from below.”