Santa is set to go in search of plankton

09 October 2016 - 02:00 By DAVE CHAMBERS


Tommy Bornman comes from Port Elizabeth in the Eastern Cape - but he's dreaming of a white Christmas. Instead of playing Santa for his two children - aged three and four-and-a-half - the marine researcher will be 1,800km away, handing out gifts to the staff of South Africa's meteorological research station on Marion Island.Bornman leaves Cape Town on December 20, one of more than 50 scientists from 30 countries on the first Antarctic Circumnavigation Expedition aboard a Russian research ship.The plankton he and his team bring back - scooped up in a R250,000 pair of nets towed behind the Akademik Treshnikov and stored until the ship returns to Cape Town in March - will keep scientists busy for years.They hope their study of the plankton will help them understand why there is not more life in the nutrient-rich Southern Ocean.story_article_left1Stephanie de Villiers, from the Department of Environmental Affairs' oceans and coasts research unit, in Cape Town, said: "The Southern Ocean has exceptionally high productivity. The question is, why is it not higher?"Team leader Sarah Fawcett, a University of Cape Town oceanographer, said the findings should help explain why the Southern Ocean did not remove more carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, aiding understanding of the Antarctic's role in world climate.South African scientists are involved in several of the 22 research projects on the voyage, which was conceived by the Swiss Polar Institute and funded by Swedish pharmaceutical billionaire Frederik Paulsen.They will study everything from biodiversity and whales to birdlife, the interactions between winds, waves, currents and ice, and the problems caused by plastic pollution.Said Fawcett: "The future of the Earth's poles is critical. In the coming decades, major international negotiations will focus on the polar regions, which are bearing the brunt of global warming."For Bornman, of the South African Environmental Observation Network, and De Villiers, who is on standby in case another team member drops out, the reality of life aboard ship will be prosaic compared with the expedition's planet-saving aspirations.They will be taking samples around the clock during the first leg of the voyage, to Tasmania, as they follow the Antarctic Circumpolar Current.Once a day, the ship will stop and samples will be collected at depths in excess of 4000m, an operation that will take at least four hours.De Villiers hopes for a rich harvest of foraminifera - single-cell creatures with shells as small as 0.1mm across. Isotopic analysis will allow her to calculate historic characteristics of the water in which they formed, which in turn will help her to predict the future.The scientists said they were thrilled to be chosen for the expedition. "Only the top and the best have been selected - for most of them, the Antarctic is their back yard," Bornman said.The Akademik Treshnikov sails from Bremerhaven in Germany on November 20, arriving in Cape Town 25 days later. Bornman will fly home from Hobart and Fawcett will join the ship for the third leg of the voyage from Punta Arenas in Chile back to Cape Town.

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