Public Release:  Climate change and life in the Southern Ocean

Research vessel Polarstern sets out for Antarctic research season

Alfred Wegener Institute, Helmholtz Centre for Polar and Marine Research

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IMAGE: Germen Research vessel Polarstern in Atka Bay, Antarctica view more

Credit: Photo: Jonas Ziegler Source: Alfred Wegener Institute

Bremerhaven, November 27, 2007. A ten-week expedition to the Lazarev Sea and the eastern part of the Weddell Sea opens this year's Antarctic research season of the German research vessel Polarstern. On the evening of November 28, just some two hours after an official ceremony at the Berlin Museum of Natural History honouring Polarstern's 25th anniversary of service, the research vessel will begin its 24th scientific voyage to the Southern Ocean from Cape Town. The 53 scientists from eight nations aboard Polarstern will focus much of their work on climate-related research as part of the International Polar Year. In addition, Polarstern will also supply the German Neumayer Station during the first leg of the trip, and accompany the freighter â€Naja Arctica' which will deliver construction materials for the new research station Neumayer III to the Antarctic. On February 4, 2008, Polarstern is expected to return to Cape Town.

"Our research projects will improve the understanding of physical and biological processes associated with the Antarctic Circumpolar Current and the Weddell Gyre, both of which play a key role for the earth's climate", explains chief scientist Prof Dr Ulrich Bathmann of the Alfred Wegener Institute for Polar and Marine Research in the Helmholtz Association, referring to the central goal of the expedition. Plankton algae from these two marine currents south of the Atlantic Ocean are absorbing significant amounts of the climate gas carbon dioxide through their growth during the summer. By sinking to the Antarctic deep sea, these algae are subsequently transferring the carbon dioxide to the seafloor, where, in some cases below 4000 meter water depth, they provide food for bottom dwelling organisms. "The efficiency of this biological pump is controlled, for example, by nutrients, by physical dynamics in the ocean surface layer, and by the species of algae involved", says Bathmann. "We have to investigate these complex interactions further, in order to optimise scientific climate predictions."

The region covered by Polarstern during this mission extends from 40 to 70 degrees southern latitude, i.e. from the so-called subtropical convergence, a hydrological boundary separating the Antarctic from the Atlantic Ocean, and the Antarctic continent. The scientific studies aboard Polarstern, aside from being highly relevant for climate research, are part of three large international programmes within the International Polar Year framework.

The research programme SCACE (Synoptic Circum-Antarctic Climate and Ecosystem Study) explores physical and biological interrelations in the Antarctic Circumpolar Current, comparing recently recorded parameters with historical data. "The Antarctic Circumpolar Current measures several hundred kilometres across, surrounding the Antarctic continent and connecting all large oceans", explains Ulrich Bathmann. "This large ocean current transports both heat energy and fresh water, plays a central role in the ocean-wide cycles of dissolved material, and contains a series of distinct ecosystems that may displace each other with changing climate regimes. Plankton algae involved have a high potential for absorbing atmospheric carbon dioxide", the marine biologist adds about the significance of the Antarctic Circumpolar Current for the functioning of the system Earth. At the same time, Southern Ocean natural systems themselves are extremely sensitive to global changes. Hence, one of the central tasks of the SCACE programme will consist in collecting a unique data set that can serve as a benchmark for comparison with existing data to identify and quantify polar changes.

A special role for food webs in the Southern Ocean is played by krill. This group of crustaceans, which may also become interesting for economic purposes, has been relatively well studied in some few regions of the Antarctic, for instance surrounding the Antarctic Peninsula. However, as some of the results revealed, the krill's seasonal survival mechanisms show large regional variation, so extrapolations from local studies to a wider area are hardly possible. For this reason, the research project LAKRIS (Lazarev Sea Krill Study) will be a detailed investigation into the life cycle, distribution and physiology of krill populations in the Lazarev Sea. According to existing information, krill is very abundant in this area. "In this case also, our primary question of interest is the krill's ability to adapt to potential environmental changes", explains Ulrich Bathmann the connection to climate research. The LAKRIS study will complement similar large-scale investigations in other regions of the Antarctic.

While the continental shelf regions surrounding Antarctica are relatively well known, the Antarctic deep sea remains practically unexplored. Large areas of the seafloor around Antarctica, however, are deep-sea environments. Led by Prof Dr Angelika Brandt of the Zoological Institute of the University of Hamburg the third expedition project, ANDEEP-SYSTCO, tries to shed light on this unknown world. The acronym envelops an Antarctic deep-sea research programme, exploring various regions of the Southern Ocean at several thousand meters of depth with the primary goal of analysing interactions among atmosphere, water column and seafloor. "Since deep sea research continues to take us to unknown worlds, we are expecting some new and fascinating insights regarding biological diversity in the ocean, perhaps even the discovery of previously unknown species", explains Bathmann. The Polarstern expedition thus is part of two major global research initiatives studying marine biodiversity: the â€Census of Antarctic Marine Life' (CAML), and the â€Census of the Diversity of Abyssal Marine Life' (CeDAMar), both of which are sub-programmes of the so-called â€Census of Marine Life'.

Before Polarstern will depart from Cape Town on November 28, however, Ulrich Bathmann will take part in the ship's anniversary celebration in Berlin -- not in person, but live on the telephone. "This ship has enabled so many extraordinary scientific insights, that it does deserve to be honoured", says the scientist who attended many expeditions aboard Polarstern. "It's a great pleasure to be able to make a personal contribution."

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ANNEX

Full Titles of the Research Programmes
SCACE = Synoptic Circum-Antarctic Climate And Ecosystem Study
LAKRIS = Lazarav Sea Krill Study
ANDEEP-SYSTCO = Antarctic Benthic Deep-Sea Biodiversity: colonisation history and recent community patterns -- System Coupling

The Partners of the Expedition

The Alfred Wegener Institute for Polar and Marine Research in the Helmholtz Association (AWI) is the German national science centre for polar and marine research, has its central themes in global system and environmental science. It is conducting research in the Arctic, the Antarctic and at temperate latitudes. It coordinates polar research in Germany and provides both the necessary equipment and the essential logistic back up for polar expeditions. The Institute's research mission is to improve our understanding of ocean-ice-atmosphere interactions, the animal and plant kingdoms of the Arctic and Antarctic, and the evolution of the polar continent and seas. The scientific programmes SCACE and LAKRIS are in the focus of Polarstern expedition ANT-XXIV/2. Given the major role played by these regions within the Earth's climate system, global change is a central focus of the research effort at the Alfred Wegener Institute.

The Census of Antarctic Marine Life (CAML) is a project of the global Census of Marine Life (CoML). CAML is investigating the distribution and abundance of Antarctica's vast marine biodiversity to develop a benchmark for the benefit of humankind. As one of the main International Polar Year-endorsed initiatives, CAML will be the biggest Antarctic marine science programme ever undertaken, involving 24 biodiversity projects investigating life from microbes to whales.

Census of the Diversity of Abyssal Marine Life (CeDAMar). The acronym stands for an ambitious international research programme, which is designed to reveal the secrets of a largely unexplored habitat, the seafloor of the abyssal plains of the world's oceans. The main questions that we aim to answer are those of the species richness in the deep sea, which may reach that of tropical rain forests; the colonisation history of deep-sea basins and the resulting differences between them; and the evolution of deep-sea species.

The Cousteau Society (TCS), an international association created by Jacques Yves Cousteau in 1973, especially focuses, among other goals, on the equilibrium between Man and Nature on the World's oceans. The Cousteau Society has three decades of international experience documenting and communicating the value of natural resources, including those that lie within the polar realms. It intends to develop materials that use its own resources, archives and its network of partners to engage journalists, students, teachers, artists and the greater public in the exciting discoveries of marine life in polar seas by merging scientific rigor, proven learning materials and new interactivities.

University of Hamburg, Department of Biology, Institute of Zoology. The Antarctic deep-sea ecosystem is surely one of the least known places in the world. How do species interact" What impact does the atmosphere have on plants and animals in the ocean" What is happening on the seafloor, a few thousand meters below the surface" ANDEEP-SYSTCO tries to put the intricate jigsaw puzzle named "Antarctic deep-sea ecosystem" together. The main objective will be to gain a better idea of how conservation and sustainable use of ecosystems in Antarctica can be achieved.

Forschungsinstitut und Naturmuseum Senckenberg. The Senckenberg Museum, one of the major Natural History Museums of Germany, and its department DZMB (German Centre for Marine Biodiversity Research) is involved with 7 participants in ANDEEP-SYSTCO. The DZMB fosters and inspires German marine research and coordinates handling and archiving of all samples collected on German research vessels. The leader of the DZMB, Pedro Martinez Arbizu, is also one of the leaders of CeDAMar. Scientific interests of Senckenberg participants are focused on meiofauna and sponges.

Wageningen IMARES -- the Institute for Marine Resources and Ecosystem Studies -- specializes in strategic and applied marine ecological research. The institute was established in mid 2006, the result of a cooperation between RIVO (the Netherlands Institute for Fisheries Research), elements of Alterra and the Department of Ecological Risks within the TNO. Products and services include field studies, real-life scale experiments, exploratory studies at the laboratory level, data management and modelling. The institute has modern research facilities at its disposal, is ISO certified and accredited for chemical and ecotoxicological research. Clients include the government and national and international businesses. Antarctic research by IMARES is commissioned by the Netherlands Ministry for Agriculture, Nature and Food Quality (LNV) and the Netherlands AntArctic Program (NAAP).

Mission statement of the expedition

The Polarstern expedition ANT-XXIV/2 to the Southern Ocean starts on November 28, 2007 and ends on February 4, 2008 in Cape Town. The expedition's scientific programme will focus on the interaction between biological and physical processes in the surface waters and life at the seafloor. The main research area lies between the subtropical convergence and the Antarctic continent, in latitudes from 40° to 70° S. The research icebreaker Polarstern is maintained by the Alfred Wegener Institute for Polar and Marine Research in the Helmholtz Association (AWI). A team of education, outreach and communication officers from the different research groups cooperates on board to communicate research results to a wide international audience.

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