An interim report from the RV Polarstern PS134 expedition to the Western Antarctic Peninsula
Updated: Jan 26
In the evening of December 23rd, 2022, the German scientific icebreaker RV Polarstern left the harbor of Cape Town, South Africa, carrying on board a crew of 45 people and 49 scientists. During their 11-weeks expedition, they will cross the Atlantic Ocean towards Antarctica, and then, navigate almost halfway around the southernmost continent of our Planet. The purpose of their PS134 expedition envelops both logistic and scientific objectives. At the time of writing, we are January 14th, 2023, and located in the western sector of the Weddell Sea (64°40' S and 53°29' W). What follows is a short overview of the first three weeks of the expedition, brought to you by PS134 participant and APECS Belgium member Matthias Troch.
RV Polarstern sailing out of the port of Cape Town in the evening of December 23rd. Credits: Gerlien Verhaegen.
The first leg of our expedition consisted of a 14-days long transit towards the Ekström Ice Shelf in Dronning Maud Land (East Antarctica). During this crossing of the Roaring Forties, Furious Fifties, and Screaming Sixties, i.e. latitudinal bands famous for their strong winds and high waves, we encountered two westerly storms. Wind speeds reached up to 11 Beaufort, and the highest wave observed measured 13 meters tall. Fortunately, the weather settled, and our oceanographers and biologists could start their investigations.
View from inside the RV Polarstern’s bridge during one of the westerly storms. Credits: Christian Rohleder.
Although the transit towards the Ekström Ice Shelf was primarily organized to resupply Neumayer Station III, operated by the Alfred Wegener Institute (Germany), this journey was extremely valuable to various scientists onboard. The marine biologists, for instance, collected jellyfish from water depths down to 2000 meters at various sampling stations using plankton nets and sampling bottles. Their primarily results are promising as various of the encountered species have rarely been observed so far. In addition, our two French oceanographers deployed two oceanographic moorings on Maud Rise in the Southern Ocean. They furthermore recovered three moorings that were deployed one year ago. Their measurements will help to better understand the processes controlling the exchange of carbon and heat between the atmosphere, ocean and sea ice. Their research is particularly important as the Southern Ocean is responsible for about 60 – 90 % of the excess heat (i.e. heat associated with anthropogenic climate change) absorbed by our World’s Oceans each year.
Deployment of the Bongo net to collect jellyfish samples. Credits: Johanna Brehmer-Moltmann.
On Friday January 6th, we reached the Ekström Ice Shelf, and more specifically, Atka Iceport. At this location, the shelf edge reaches a height down to about 20 meters above sea level, facilitating our logistic operations. This location was purposely chosen as common ice shelves easily reach heights of 100 meters and more above sea level, making logistic operations and cargo transport impossible. Shortly after docking, the crew started the resupply mission of Neumayer Station III. First, many containers and cargo were passed across the shelf edge using two specially designed cranes. Next, snow tractors, so-called “Piston Bully’s”, were used to tow the delivered materials 18 km inland to the station. This yearly supply by the RV Polarstern is of vital importance for the overwintering team at the station, as it brings fuel, materials and food for another year. Furthermore, various summer teams rely on the delivered equipment for their research. During this 2-days logistic mission, PS134 scientists and some of the ship’s crew had opportunities to visit the impressive station and talk to the present staff.
Arrival at Ekström Ice Shelf, with a welcome committee from Neumayer Station III. Credits: Christian Rohleder.
Cargo transport. Credits: Christian Rohleder.
Part of the PS134 scientists and crew in front of Neumayer Station III.
After an emotional farewell ceremony at the ice shelf edge, we set sail again on January 8th for our long transit across the Weddell Sea and then along the western Antarctic Peninsula to our main work area in the Bellingshausen Sea of West Antarctica. From the moment we reach the Gerlache Strait at the northern tip of the peninsula, we officially enter the footsteps of Belgian commander Adrien de Gerlache and his team onboard the RV Belgica exactly 125 years ago. Their expedition collected valuable oceanographic, biological and geological data along the Antarctic Peninsula, and mapped large parts of its Western coast. In addition, scientists onboard the RV Belgica collected, for the first time in history, year-round meteorological observations in the Antarctic region. After being trapped in the ice of the Bellingshausen Sea for 13 months, Adrien de Gerlache and his expedition safely returned to Punta Arenas (Chile) in March 1899, to eventually reach Antwerp on November 5th 1899.
Track of the RV Belgica along the Antarctic Peninsula (above) and its ice drift in the Bellingshausen Sea (below) during the Belgian-Antarctic Expedition of 1897 – 1899. Source: book “Madhouse at the End of the Earth” by Julian Sancton.
As the logistic mission of our expedition was successfully completed, all scientists onboard started to prepare their laboratories and install their equipment. Shortly, we will arrive in our main study area, the Bellingshausen Sea, where we will have about 5 – 6 weeks to conduct our research. If sea ice conditions allow it, we might also perform a short survey in the Eastern sector of the Amundsen Sea.
Our primary scientific objective is to investigate the dynamics of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet in the geological past. We particularly focus on past warm times that are considered an analogue to modern climate change. An improved knowledge of these past processes will contribute to better estimates and projections of the response of our Planet to future climate change, including global sea-level rise. We will conduct geophysical surveys and collect geological samples in various areas of the Bellingshausen continental shelf and the adjacent deep sea. Rock samples will be collected by a land team from the few ice-free coastal outcrops. The marine biologists will search for Antarctic jellyfish that can reveal a lot about the state and changes of the Southern Ocean ecosystem. Another marine biology group aims to study the behavior of whales in relationship to our presence in this region.
Logo of the PS134 RV Polarstern expedition. Credits: Simon Dreutter.
After completing our scientific objectives in the Bellingshausen, and potentially Amundsen, seas, we will report back in this APECS Belgium blog. In the meantime, you can follow our expedition in four other locations. Every few days, a short update is posted on follow-polarstern.awi.de, where you can also follow the position of the RV Polarstern in real-time. In addition, our Chief Scientists, professor Karsten Gohl, maintains a more elaborate series of expedition letters on https://blogs.helmholtz.de/polarstern/en/ in a ca. biweekly manner. Finally, the Belgian Team onboard the RV Polarstern, consisting of Meltse, Gerlien and myself, maintains an expedition blog and vlog (video blog) on the 125yearsbelgica.com website and 125 years Belgica YouTube channel. In this blog/vlog series, Meltse, Gerlien and I report about our scientific endeavors, and we also reflect on the history of the very first Belgian-Antarctic Expedition of Adrien de Gerlache (1897 – 1899) famously known for their successful overwintering in the ice of the Bellingshausen Sea at the dawn of the Heroic Age of Antarctic Exploration.
The Belgian Team onboard the PS134 RV Polarstern expedition, from left to right: Matthias, Meltse and Gerlien.
Icy greetings from down south,