The frozen seascape just off Antarctica, home to a sunken ship for 106 years, is one of the most scientifically important ecosystems on the planet. What can it teach us about climate change?
“The Weddell Sea is a very remote ocean in Antarctica, nearly always covered in sea ice.”John Shears
John Shears is a polar explorer and environmental scientist.
“I think I’ve now been to Antarctica and the Arctic over 25 times in my career.”John Shears
He runs expeditions in the polar regions and advises on projects there.
And in 2019, John Shears led the Weddell Sea Expedition, a 45 day trip to study the glaciology and biology around what’s known as the Larsen C ice shelf.
“There was a Larsen A and a Larsen B and both of these ice shelves have collapsed over the last 20/25 years.”John Shears
The concern for scientists is that, as temperatures are warming, ice shelves further to the south which should be colder, are beginning to warm up and disappear.
And that’s worrying.
“Antarctica is very important for science because of its profound effect on the earth’s climate and the ocean’s systems.”John Shears
Antarctica is locked in a four kilometre-thick ice sheet and because of that, it gives scientists a unique record of what our planet’s climate was like over the past one million years.
And so for a month and a half, living on a big expedition ship called the S.A. Agulhas II, in one of the most remote and hostile places on earth, John Shears and his team studied the area around the Larsen C ice shelf.
“I’m very very proud of the expedition as the voyage leader… Very few vessels had ever been that far into the Weddell Sea and we got there and we did a big programme of scientific research, looking at the glaciers there, the oceanography, the marine geology, marine biology using our autonomous underwater vehicles, a remotely operated vehicle, it was a big success…”John Shears
But while they were down at the South Pole, there was one more thing John Shears and his team wanted to explore.
“Because we were in the area, we decided that we’d also go and look for The Endurance as well. It’s probably one of the most famous of any shipwrecks in the polar regions.”John Shears
The Endurance was owned by the British polar explorer Sir Ernest Shackleton.
He wanted to be the first person to cross Antarctica. So in December 1914, he led a crew of 28 men from South Georgia towards Antartica’s Weddell Sea coast.
Within two days, their ship ran into the barrier of thick ice that surrounds Antarctica.
For weeks, the Endurance made painstaking progress, and then…
“The ship never got to Antarctica, it got within about a hundred miles and then it got stuck in the sea ice.”John Shears
The ship was stuck. A gale had pushed large packs of floating ice against one another.
Waiting for conditions to change, the crew had no alternative but to camp on the ice.
They spent nine months there before eventually abandoning it once the ice broke up, taking food, bibles, clothing, tools and three open lifeboats with them.
Here’s the historian Dan Snow.
“To say it was dangerous, it was simply the greatest open boat journey in the history of the world. No human being had ever conceived of taking a boat like that through these oceans towards South Georgia before.”Dan Snow
Exhausted, and suffering from sea sickness and dysentery, Ernest Shackleton and his crew rowed to Elephant Island, where they stood on solid ground for the first time in nearly 500 days.
They all survived.
As for Endurance, when the ice melted and froze again in the spring, the ship succumbed to the sea, and sank.
Before leaving, Endurance’s captain had recorded its last position using old navigational methods and the position of the stars to guide him.
And John Shears wanted to find the ship.
“What we wanted to do, was to get to the sinking location of the Endurance.”John Shears
The Weddell Sea 2019 Expedition reached the site of the sinking but just as they thought they might find the shipwreck…
“We lost our autonomous underwater vehicle, our free swimming underwater robot. It was a desperately sad, disappointing time for us all.”John Shears
Not only did they lose their robot but they lost all the data it had collected from the seabed too.
And with the sea ice beginning to freeze as winter came to Antarctica, John Shears and his team had run out of time.
That was until this February, when they returned to the Weddell Sea.
“Endurance itself appeared to be lost forever, until researchers made a stunning discovery over the weekend.”CNBC
Using state-of-the-art marine technology and with technicians working through the night, John Shears’ team found the Endurance 3,000 metres under the ice just four nautical miles from its recorded position.
“I mean it was a jaw dropping moment. The hairs on the back of my neck stood up. I was stunned”John Shears
And because of the cold, largely lifeless sea, the quality of the wreck exceeded expectations.
“You can see the ropes from the rigging, it’s as if it sank only yesterday.”John Shears
“You can see the paintwork. It’s as good as that. It doesn’t get any better, it’s a beautiful wreck”Mensun Bound, Endurance22 Exploration Director
The frozen seascape just off Antarctica, home to Endurance for 106 years, is one of the most scientifically important ecosystems on the planet.
And through expeditions like this one, biologists and glaciologists, geologists and meteorologists arewere able to access a place that’s incredibly difficult to get to.
Each of their own discoveries will help predict what changes we can expect from our climate, finding the Endurance was just a bonus.
Today’s story was written and produced by Imy Harper.
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