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  • Writer's pictureMatthias Troch

WAIS-BELL PS134: The end of a successful expedition

375 versus 39, those are the number of days the RV Belgica and RV Polarstern respectively spent in the Bellingshausen Sea along Antarctica’s West coast. Whilst the RV Belgica expedition was the first one to ever reach this part of Antarctica, the RV Polarstern had the unique opportunity to survey previously uncharted areas due to this year’s sea ice minimum. More specifically, the Polarstern expedition was able to map and sample the seafloor of the innermost parts of Ronne Entrance, Eltanin Bay, and the eastern edge of the Abbot Ice Shelf. Doing so, new glacial troughs, over which former ice streams had flown, were discovered, and various marine animals, including whales and jellyfish, were studied for the first time in this region.

Credits: Johann Klages.

RV Polarstern in this year’s sea ice free Bellingshausen Sea. Credits: Daniela Röhnert.

Morphological formations were left by former mighty glaciers on the seafloor of the western Bellingshausen Sea shelf, an area that was previously unmapped.

The research activities of this year’s PS134 RV Polarstern expedition spanned almost six weeks, and included the collection of seismic and bathymetric data, sampling seafloor sediments, subaerial rock outcrops, and jellyfish, observing whales and seals, measuring geothermal heat flow, forecasting Antarctic lows, highs, and winds, and flying drones and helicopters. This year’s Polarstern expedition turned out to be one of the most successful Antarctic shelf expeditions so far, partly due to favorable weather and absence of sea ice, but most importantly, because of an exceptionally motivated group of jovial and talented crew and scientists. The amount and quality of the data and samples collected raise expectations for important new knowledge about the history of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet, as well as an improved understanding of the ecological system in the Bellingshausen Sea.

A bunch of happy PS134 scientists after finishing their Antarctic research activities. Credits: Christoph Bogner.

Our Chief Scientist, professor Karsten Gohl, carefully logged our research activities into a series of six expedition letters which can be read here. A detailed description of the heroic survival in, and escape from, Antarctica’s dense sea ice by the RV Belgica’s expedition members 125 year ago was meticulously written down by Julian Sancton in his novel “Madhouse at the end of the Earth”. Furthermore, the three Belgians on board the RV Polarstern, including Gerlien, Meltse, and myself, devoted much of their time comparing both expeditions from scientific and historic perspectives, their work is presented on their website.

The RV Belgica carefully sailing through drifting sea ice after its yearlong imprisonment. Credits: De Gerlache Family Collection, Zingem, Belgium.

At the time of writing (March 3th 2023), we are crossing the southeastern part of the Pacific Ocean towards the Strait of Magellan, a well navigable sea route in southern Chile separating mainland South America to the north from Tierra del Fuego in the south. This sea strait will constitute the final leg of our expedition, and will provide us a scenic welcome in inhabited land after spending nearly 11 weeks at sea. Soon we will reach the harbor in Punta Arenas (Chile), where our expedition officially ends.

Greeting from on board the RV Polarstern,


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