SA Agulhas II crew make history – proud discovery in Antarctica
In the depressing and often emotionally draining socio-political environment of South Africa, a story like this is a tonic and can help keep us energized enough to handle things. It’s about what it takes to stay afloat while finding and/or salvaging what’s sunk. We’re talking about a fit-for-purpose system, publicly funded, SA Agulhas II – arguably the world’s most scientifically valuable Antarctic exploration vessel – which recently found the sunken and ice-crushed 1915 ship, explorer Sir Ernest Shackleton’s Endurance. In 3,000 m of water and at the beginning of nogal winter! A winter nearly claimed the lives of Shackleton and his crew (all 27 eventually abandoned ship clutching the ice and camped on the ice for rescue). The sunken vessel (coordinates recorded) has remained a mystery, with the Agulhas II failing to locate it during a 2019 mission. Last month, our modern-day explorers and climatologists succeeded. Time and perseverance, a quality we all need in a hurry, pays off. Story courtesy of The conversation. –Chris Bateman
The South African ship that found the Endurance wreckage in Antarctica is vital for climate science
By Sarah Fawcett*
It was in 1914 when the English explorer Sir Ernest Shackleton set out on his Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition aboard a ship called Endurance. It was an unfortunate trip; the ship became trapped in the ice and was eventually crushed by pack ice in 1915. It sank to the bottom of the Weddell Sea in Antarctica. (Shackleton and his whole team survived the ordeal by escaping in smaller boats.)
It was hard to believe that the Endurance could ever be found. The icy Weddell Sea is inhospitable and the wreck lies in over 3,000 meters of water. But thanks to a South African vessel, the SA Agulhas II, Endurance Was found in March 2022. It was the second time the polar icebreaker had reached the coordinates that Endurance Captain Frank Worsley recorded as the ship sank. The first was in 2019; the vessel was not located on this occasion.
The tale of the Endurance is fascinating. But it is also the history of the SA Needles II. Thanks to this vessel, South Africa is becoming a leader in certain aspects of Antarctic science. For example, it is very unusual to make in situ measurements of the physics, chemistry and biology of the open Southern Ocean and its sea ice in winter due to darkness, inhospitable weather conditions and high concentrations of sea ice.
However, since 2012, the SA Needles II undertook at least five winter voyages between Cape Town and the Antarctic ice floe, a journey of nearly 3,000 kilometres. These expeditions provided essential data to understand the evolution of the Southern Ocean and to validate the numerical models developed to predict the future climate. My research group, consisting mostly of postgraduate students, collected samples on numerous cruises aboard the SA Needles II that, following their measurement in the Marine biogeochemistry laboratory at the University of Cape Town, are improving our understanding of nutrient and carbon cycling in the Southern Ocean.
THE ACE Needles II has also served – and continues to serve – as a training ground for hundreds of students, mostly South Africans, in various disciplines: oceanography, marine biology, atmospheric sciences, etc. It annually supports Semester, a ship-based educational program dubbed “South Africa’s First Afloat Class.” During this government-funded capacity-building expedition, approximately 50 postgraduate students from across the country spend 10 days aboard the vessel. They are introduced to interdisciplinary, applied and practical marine sciences.
The so-called ‘ShackletonHeroic Age of Antarctic Exploration‘ was basically a display of European colonial power. This kick-started decades of Antarctic research that was open almost exclusively to white men.
It is therefore only fitting that one of the most impressive ice-breaking research vessels in the world is now owned and operated by the only African signatory to the 1961 convention. Antarctic Treaty – which protects Antarctica and its surrounding ecosystems from exploitation and annexation – and is a platform to train African researchers undertaking globally relevant research.
THE ACE Needles II is a Class 5 Polar Vessel owned by the South African Department of Forestry, Fisheries and the Environment and operated by African Marine Solutions.
She was built at STX Finland’s shipyard in Rauma, Finland and handed over to the South African government in 2012. Cape Town is her homeport.
134 meters long, with 10 decks, a crew of 45 and a berth for 100 scientists, the SA Needles II was uniquely designed as both a polar supply ship and a scientific research vessel. As part of the ship’s mandate, it annually provides fuel, food, personnel and other essential resources to South African research bases in Antarctica and on the sub-Antarctic Marion and Gough Islands.
It is also equipped with eight permanent science labs (with space aft for six additional specialist labs in shipping containers). The vessel’s infrastructure allows various instruments and sample collection equipment (and even people) to be deployed to the side or center of the vessel through an opening in the hull known as the “moon pool”.
These and other characteristics are essential when exploring a place as remote, vast and inhospitable as the Southern Ocean, which is generally defined as the waters south of 40ºS that connect the Atlantic, Indian and Pacific Oceans. West winds can exceed 60 km/h, causing swells of more than 10 meters. Sea ice more than a meter thick often extends more than 1,000 kilometers north of Antarctica. These factors make the region arguably the most difficult and logistically expensive ocean to conduct research.
Such research is essential. The Southern Ocean is Most important of all ocean regions for the Earth’s climate. Waters from around Antarctica carry large amounts of heat and dissolved gases, such as the powerful greenhouse gas carbon dioxide (CO2), around the planet and in the deep ocean to be stored for hundreds of years.
Nutrients such as nitrogen and phosphorus, essential for all life on Earth, flow from the Southern Ocean to tropical and temperate latitudes. They are thought to support at least two-thirds of the world’s ocean productivity there. Without the Southern Ocean, our planet would not be habitable: continued research and monitoring of this marine system is essential.
THE ACE Needles II could reach the Endurance wreck site partly due to lighter than normal summer ice conditions in the Weddell Sea. This is almost certainly a consequence of human-induced warming of the natural world. Significant reductions in Antarctic ice cover due to atmospheric and oceanic warming, and related changes in the Southern Ocean and its ecosystems, present a very real threat to Earth’s habitability.
Around the world, and in South Africa, public research funding is declining; proportionately more science is being done supported by private donors. A significant risk of this model is that a handful of powerful people, rather than a community of scientists dependent on peer review and subject to checks and balances, will manage to set the global research agenda.
THE ACE Needles II stands out because it belongs to the people of South Africa. The success of the ship – under the guidance of the Master Petty Officer Captain Knowledge Bengu – by locating the Endurance is a reminder of its value not only to South African research, but also to current and future global science endeavours.
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