9 Jan 2021

NIWA scientists en route to Antarctica

From The Weekend with Karyn Hay , 5:02 pm on 9 January 2021

NIWA's flagship research vessel Tangaroa has departed for a six-week voyage to Antarctica, where scientists will be undertaking one of the few full scientific projects on the continent since the global outbreak of Covid-19. 

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NIWA scientist Richard O'Driscoll. Photo: NIWA / Stuart Mackay

Voyage leader and fisheries scientist Dr Richard O'Driscoll spoke to The Weekend as his team were busy prepping for their long journey to the icy continent.

Travelling on the Norwegian built research ship, the journey from Wellington to the Ross Sea takes around six or seven days - and it's not for the faint of heart.

"Crossing the Southern Ocean is quite notorious, you've heard of the roaring forties, and then there's the ferocious fifties and the screaming sixties," O'Driscoll said.

"We've got to transition through all those areas that don't have any land to block the prevailing winds, so it's often quite a rough trip down which is a bit of an induction for some of the people that haven't had a lot of seagoing experience, they'll test their sea legs for sure."

While the expedition was initially planned to include around five overseas participants, Covid got in the way - so now their places have been filled by New Zealand students, a post-doctoral fellow and also a NIWA staff member.

As the Ross Sea is covered with ice for most of the year, this is the only time when conditions are suitable for research work. While 1.5 million square kilometres of the area is a marine protected zone, with 1.1 million square kilometres fully protected, scientists are able to set up research fisheries in a designated subset of the sanctuary.

"This is really a voyage of discovery," O'Driscoll said. "We're interested in understanding the key systems and processes and how they operate in the Ross Sea, so we can better predict what the effects of climate change will be and also so we can monitor the effectiveness of that marine protected area."

Scientists on the voyage will be monitoring toothfish, krill and in particular, sperm whales - which have not been sighted in the Ross Sea for a very long time.

 A number of mooring were set up in 2019, some containing "hydrophones" to record the sounds of ocean life - with particular interest in finding evidence of the distinctive clicking sound of the sperm whale.

However, studying the smaller residents of the Ross Sea is also important, particularly in the age of climate change.

O'Driscoll said a type of plant plankton known as 'phytoplankton' was responsible for taking in around 50 percent of the carbon dioxide in the atmosphere - but marine bacteria were then taking the phytoplankton and generating more carbon dioxide that goes back into the atmosphere.

"We're trying to understand that whole cycle and the factors that might influence that and the impacts of climate change. So if the sea temperature warms for example or cools - and it could go either way - what effect does it have on the phytoplankton, what effect does it have on the bacteria, what effect does that have on the total amount of CO2 in the atmosphere?"

As the Ross Sea sits directly south of New Zealand, the studies on climate change in the area could help us learn more about what to expect in the future.

"There's still hasn't been a lot of work done down there so for us, we're almost guaranteed we'll see something new, certainly new to us."

And despite having spent a lot of his life as a scientist at sea, O'Driscoll said he was still blown away by the beauty of the frozen continent.

"Every day when you're on a boat, you've got a different view out your window and every trip I do I see something that I've never seen before and Antarctica's like that, except it's an order of magnitude - more different and more exciting."