Antarctic Weddell expedition targets Shackleton’s lost ship

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Media captionProf Julian Dowdeswell: “I must stress: sea-ice conditions are always difficult in the Weddell Sea”

A scientific expedition in the Antarctic is set to depart its current location to go in search of Sir Ernest Shackleton’s lost ship.

The team has been investigating the Larsen C Ice Shelf and the continent’s biggest iceberg, known as A68.

And this puts it just a few hundred km from the last recorded position of the famous British explorer’s vessel, the Endurance.

The polar steam-yacht was crushed in sea-ice and sank in November 1915.

Image copyright RGS
Image caption Endurance just before it sank: Crushed at the stern, it went down bow first

Shackleton’s extraordinary escape from this loss, saving his crew, means there is considerable interest in finding the wreck.

Endurance should be resting on the ocean floor, some 3,000m down.

The Weddell Sea Expedition 2019 team wants to grab the chance of making the discovery, using robotic submersibles.

But the group will have a tough job reaching the location, concedes chief scientist Prof Julian Dowdeswell.

“We’ve got a journey of several hundred km from where we are now through really heavy and quite difficult sea-ice,” he told BBC Radio 4’s Inside Science programme this week.

“We shall do our best to get there with the excellent ice-breaker that we have, but in any given year it will be very difficult to judge whether you will be able to penetrate the sea-ice.”

The team has a very good idea of where the Endurance should be.

Shackleton’s skipper on the vessel, Frank Worsley, was a highly skilled navigator, and used a sextant and chronometer to calculate the sinking’s co-ordinates – 68°39’30.0″ South and 52°26’30.0″ West.

The ship is almost certainly within a few nautical miles of this point.

If Prof Dowdeswell’s ice-breaker, the SA Agulhas II, can get reasonably close – it will be game-on.

Image copyright Scott Polar Research Institute, Cambridge Uni
Image caption Frank Worsley used his sextant to record the position of the sinking

The American geophysical survey company Ocean Infinity is part of the Weddell Sea Expedition group. It has a Kongsberg Hugin autonomous underwater vehicle that it will deploy to map a 20km by 20km grid square on the ocean floor.

If it succeeds in locating the Endurance, a remotely operated vehicle will then be sent down to photograph the wreck site.

The organisms that normally consume sunken wooden ships do not thrive in the cold waters of the Antarctic, so there is optimism that Endurance’s timbers are well preserved. That said, crushing forces had done quite a bit of damage to the vessel before she slipped below the floes.

“I think that if we locate the Endurance, the greater likelihood will be that her hull is semi-upright and still in a semi-coherent state,” commented marine archaeologist Mensun Bound.

“However, on the evidence of the only deep-water wooden wreck I have been privileged to study, I must concede that there is every possibility that she could have been wrenched wide open by impact (with the seafloor), thus exposing her contents like a box of chocolates,” he wrote on his expedition blog.

Image copyright WEDDELL SEA EXPEDITION 2019
Image caption The SA Agulhas II needs the sea-ice conditions to be favourable

Luck has been with the Weddell cruise so far.

Attempts to get to Larsen C in recent years by other expeditions were thwarted by the sea-ice conditions, but the SA Agulhas II has made the most of favourable circumstances to reach Larsen and complete an extensive range of studies.

The ice shelf is the fourth largest such structure in the Antarctic.

It is an amalgam of glacier fronts that have flowed off land and lifted up to form a floating platform.

Image copyright WEDDELL SEA EXPEDITION 2019
Image caption Larsen C is the fourth largest ice shelf in the Antarctic

Similar shelves to the north have collapsed in past decades and researchers want to understand the current status and likely future prospects of Larsen C. Was the calving from the shelf of the monster berg A68 in July 2017 just part of a natural cycle, or an indication that changes are coming?

To gain the necessary insights, the submersible technology has been investigating the mixing of waters under the ice shelf.

“We’re also measuring the salinity and temperature of the ocean because if warmer waters get beneath the ice shelf – that can cause it to thin and collapse,” said Prof Dowdeswell, who is also the director of the Scott Polar Research Institute in Cambridge, UK. and follow me on Twitter: @BBCAmos

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