Press release

Polarstern to explore uncharted seafloor

[24. November 2006] 

Atmospheric global warming has resulted in significant environmental changes on the Antarctic Peninsula and throughout Western Antarctica. Glaciers are melting and the Larsen ice shelves are collapsing. An interesting consequence: areas which were previously covered by ice shelves several hundred meters thick are now accessible to researchers!

A place never investigated before
Huge areas of sea floor (around 3,250 km2) have been freed up by the collapse 4 years ago of the Larsen B platform along the Antarctic Peninsula – leaving a blank spot on Antarctic maps. Polarstern, the research flagship of the Alfred Wegener Institute for Polar and Marine Research, will shortly conduct there the first major biological research, studying living communities, from microbes to whales, including bottom fish and squids.

Outreach opportunity: a media contact officer on board
A major anticipated expedition outcome will be extensive media coverage of research findings.
* Through a media contact officer onboard, in direct contact with the AWI chief scientist an his team of researchers assisted by 2 journalists on land,
* Through striking visuals obtained through state-of-the-art technology such as a remotel operated vehicle equipped with video camera and a high-resolution deep-sea still camera,
* Through regular contact with global media via satellite,
The Polarstern expedition will increase and improve general knowledge of polar issues and engage the public in polar discovery.

A run upt to the International Polar Year (IPY)
With 47 scientists onboard from more than a dozen different nationalities, the Polarstern expedition brings
together an international network of research programs that will focus on the biological characteristics of this blank spot, from November 2006 to January 2007. One of the major contributors to the the Census of Antarctic Marine Life (CAML), Polarstern’s voyage will be a major event in the IPY, and open the way for further polar expeditions.



Cooperation for Public relations

The Alfred Wegener Institute cooperates on this Polarstern expedition with the different institutions to bring the themes of polar science to a broad public. Following institutions are part of the cooperation:

Census of Marine Life (CoML)
The Census of Marine Life is a growing global network of researchers in more than 70 nations engaged in a 10-year initiative to assess and explain the diversity, distribution, and abundance of marine life in the oceans - past, present, and future. www.coml.org

Census of Antarctic marine life (CAML)
The Census of Antarctic Marine Life, which is part of the global Census of Marine Life, will investigate the distribution and abundance of Antarctica’s vast marine biodiversity to develop a benchmark for the benefi t of humankind. As one of the main International Polar Year endorsed initiatives, the Census of Antarctic Marine Life will be the biggest Antarctic marine science program ever undertaken, investigating all regions, biomes and habitats. www.caml.aq

The Cousteau Society (TCS)

The Cousteau Society is an international organization created by Jacques-Yves Cousteau in 1973, focusing, among other goals, on the equilibrium between Humanity and Nature on the World’s oceans. TCS has three decades of international experience documenting and communicating the value of natural resources, including within the polar realms. TCS has a strong legacy of preserving Antarctica, which includes Captain Cousteau’s worldwide petition that helped keep Antarctica as a “natural reserve, land of science and peace”. www.cousteau.org

International Polar Foundation (IPF)
The International Polar Foundation communicates and educates on polar research as a way to understand key environmental and climate mechanisms. It will use the International Polar Year as a powerful tool to get its message across a wide audience. Beside its outreach mission for international media, the IPF scientific officer onboard will make the follow-up of the expedition accessible to the youth through its “Educapoles” website. www.polarfoundation.org and www.educapoles.org

The Polar embassy

The Polar Embassy is an offi cial International Polar Year education and outreach project linking scientific knowledge to the public at large. It focuses on topics related to polar areas, sustainable development and global climate change, and their links “From Local to Polar”. The Polar Embassy has developed participative actions to raise awareness and educate through a program spanning from 2006 to 2009 and beyond. Some participants will have the opportunity to join exceptional expeditions in the Arctic and Antarctica, onboard a polar vessel, the wandering “Polar Embassy”. They will hereafter be entitled “Polar Ambassadors” and endowed with the task of spreading the word about polar regions anf their importance for the planet.

The intinerary:
Departure - November 23, 2006: Capetown
The Polarstern leaves Cape Town, South Africa, heading towards the Weddell Sea (1).

December 4/5 To December 14, 2006: Neumayer station
The Polarstern stops in the Atka Bay in order to supply the German Neumayer Research Station (2).

December 14 To January 26, 2006: Antarctic Peninsula
The fi rst investigations, on living resources (CCAMLR), take place on the western side of the Antarctic Peninsula, around the South Shetland Islands (3).

The subsequent ecological work (CAML) is located around the Larsen A/B area. If the sea ice is not penetrable, an alternative area around Joinville Island will be used instead (4).

Arrival– January 30, 2007: Punta Arenas

The Polarstern will end its expedition in Punta Arenas, Chile on January 30, 2007 (5).

Science Programme: 25 different research projects will be undertaken by 47 scientists, encompassing disciplines as diverse as benthology, planktonology, taxonomy, ecology, physiology, biogeochemistry, genetics, bathymetry, etc.

Fisheries management
The first part of the expedition will focus on biological investigations on fish stocks as a contribution to the Convention on the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (CCAMLR, www.ccamlr.org), following a dozen similar surveys since 1976. Researchers will monitor previously fished areas located in the western part of the Antarctic Peninsula to determine the state of stock recovery.

Global warming and ice shelf collapse
When Antarctic glaciers reach the coast of the continent, they begin to float and become ice shelves, from which icebergs are then calved. Since 1974, a total of 13,500 km2 of ice shelves have disintegrated in the Antarctic Peninsula, a phenomenon linked to the regional temperature rise of more than 2°C in these past 50 years. An increasing number of scientists worry that similar break-ups in other areas could lead to increases in ice flow and cause sea level to rise dramatically. The final collapse of the Larsen B platform in February 2002 is the latest and the biggest of these catastrophic events tentatively related to global warming, freeing an additional 3,250 km2 of sea bottom of an ice cover that has been estimated to be there for at least 5,000 years.

Evolution of bottom fauna
Meanwhile, the vanishing ice allowing vegetal and animal plankton to reinvade and thrive in these areas offers a perfect opportunity to study the evolution of bottom animal communities depending on this plankton. Sampling with various trawls, grabs and traps and the use of a remote operated vehicle with a video camera will allow the description of new species within this near-pristine environment. A dozen scientific studies will look into groups as different as microbes, sponges, crustaceans, octopuses, starfish and whales, from the grounding line to the open sea areas, and will furthermore give the best benchmark of the early stages of colonization. These studies could become a reference for other parts of Antarctica where such disintegration of ice shelves is already expected on how climate-induced shifts in biodiversity will change in ecosystems structured largely by ice.

Mud volcanoes
The expedition will also lead the first biological studies of a recently discovered cold-vent ecosystem in the same Larsen area, the first of its kind known in Antarctica. Uncovered in 2005 by an American geoscience research team, this 8 km2 zone harbors mounds spewing out fluid and mud particles, and hosts clusters of large clams. These mollusks and their associated fauna probably depend on chemical energy from the interior of the Earth, rather than one driven by photosynthesis from the sun or from hot emissions rising from inside the planet.

Bremerhaven, November 24, 2006

In case of publication, please provide a copy.

Notes for editors: For further information from Alfred Wegener Institute please contact Dr Angelika Dummermuth (+49(0)471 4831 1742; email medien@awi-bremerhaven.de).

The Alfred Wegener Institute carries out research in the Arctic and Antarctic as well as in the high and mid latitude oceans. The institute coordinates German polar research and makes available to international science important infrastructure, e.g. the research ice breaker “Polarstern” and research stations in the Arctic and Antarctic. AWI is one of 15 research centres within the Helmholtz-Gesellschaft, Germany’s largest scientific organization.

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Das Institut

Das Alfred-Wegener-Institut forscht in den Polarregionen und Ozeanen der mittleren und hohen Breiten. Als eines von 19 Forschungszentren der Helmholtz-Gemeinschaft koordiniert es Deutschlands Polarforschung und stellt Schiffe wie den Forschungseisbrecher Polarstern und Stationen für die internationale Wissenschaft zur Verfügung.