SA icebreaker in quest for legendary Shackleton wreck in icy Antarctic seas

11 January 2019 - 10:46 By Bobby Jordan and Dave Chambers
The SA Agulhas II in the Antarctic's Weddell Sea on Thursday January 10 2019. The ship is considered one of the world’s top research vessels and will investigate the underside of massive floating ice shelves that may reveal information about global warming.
The SA Agulhas II in the Antarctic's Weddell Sea on Thursday January 10 2019. The ship is considered one of the world’s top research vessels and will investigate the underside of massive floating ice shelves that may reveal information about global warming.
Image: Weddell Sea Expedition

A South African ship has completed the first phase of an Antarctic expedition that will peer 3km beneath the ice and possibly locate a legendary ship lost more than a century ago.

The SA Agulhas II, considered one of the world’s top research vessels, arrived on Thursday at the Larsen C Ice Shelf, the primary destination for the scientific research that will take place during the Weddell Sea Expedition.

The ship reached the ice shelf after a seven-day voyage from Penguin Bukta.

The next phase of the expedition will involve two days of sea trials to test its underwater system. This includes autonomous underwater vehicles and a remotely operated vehicle.

If the trials succeed, the expedition’s scientific research programme will take place between Sunday and January 25.

Depending on sea ice conditions, the expedition will then head towards the recorded sinking location of Sir Ernest Shackleton’s ship, Endurance, which was crushed by sea ice and sank in the Weddell Sea in 1915.

The underwater drones will attempt to locate and survey the wreck on the sea bed before the expedition ends on February 5.

The expedition includes several scientists from the University of Cape Town, Nelson Mandela University and the South African Environmental Observation Network.

Their prospects rely largely on the state-of-the-art technology aboard the ship, bought by the government in 2012 and managed by the department of environmental affairs.

The icebreaker allows scientists to study not only animal life beneath the ice, but the ice itself, to see how it has changed over the years.

The Larsen C ice shelf, photographed from the SA Agulhas II on January 10 2019.
The Larsen C ice shelf, photographed from the SA Agulhas II on January 10 2019.
Image: Weddell Sea Expedition

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. 

African Marine Solutions (Amsol), which manages the SA 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.  

"Ice shelves are of particular scientific interest because they are susceptible both to atmospheric warming from above and ocean warming from below."

Polar geographer and environmental scientist Dr John Shears, who is leading the expedition, said on Friday: "The SA Agulhas II has performed fantastically well during the expedition and proven powerful, strong and highly capable in the dense pack ice we have encountered on our amazing journey."


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