On this New Year’s Day, fresh off sea trials, the SA Agulhas II, one of the largest and most modern polar research ships in the world, will quietly weigh anchor and set sail for the Weddell Sea in Antarctica.
As with oceanographer Robert Ballard’s historic search for the Titanic, the mission is two-fold. There’s a main mission — science and research into the real-world effects of our growing climate emergency — and a less publicized but no less worthy mission, to find the remains of polar explorer Sir Ernest Shackleton’s ill-fated ship Endurance.
It was thought unlikely, if not impossible, for example, that anyone would find Sir John Franklin’s HMS Terror, which was abandoned to heavy sea ice in the high Arctic — together with Franklin’s flagship, HMS Erebus — in Britain’s disastrous the mid-19th century expedition to find a way through Canada’s Northwest Passage.
All 129 men on the Franklin expedition died, making it the worst disaster to strike Britain’s Royal Navy during its long history of polar exploration.
And yet, little more than two years ago, a diving team on the non-profit Arctic Research Foundation’s research ship Martin Bergmann found the Terror in virtually pristine condition, its three masts broken but still standing, at the bottom of the aptly named — and previously uncharted — Terror Bay, just south of Victoria Strait, in Canada’s Northwest Territories.
Nearly a century later, the Irish-born polar explorer Ernest Shackleton found himself mired in similar circumstances on the other side of the world — literally — when his ship Endurance became trapped in sea ice during an attempt to make the frist land crossing of the Antarctic continent.
Endurance was slowly crushed in the thickening ice; the crew escaped certain death by camping on the sea ice until it, too, disintegrated.
Unlike Franklin, however, Shackleton managed to lead much of his crew to safety and eventual rescue, by sailing 1,300 kilometres (800 miles) from the Antarctic to South Georgia Island in the South Atlantic in a seven-metre (23 feet) lifeboat, in one of the great tales of survival in maritime history.
Fast-forward to Jan. 1, 2019, and the SA Agulhas II is about to set sail on a 45-day scientific expedition deep into those areas of the Weddell Sea that are still covered in ice, despite it being the height of the Antarctic summer.
The Agulhas crew will study the effects of climate change and global warming.
In July, 2017, a giant iceberg twice the size of Luxembourg — or four times the size of Greater London, if you prefer — calved off the Larsen C ice shelf on the Antarctic Peninsular, the northernmost arm of Antarctica and a hotspot for research because its retreating glaciers are a significant contributor to the global rise in sea levels.
The expedition includes more than 30 international scientists in numerous different fields. The 13,500-tonne, 135-metre (450 feet) icebreaker Agulhas is equipped with drones, Autonomous Underwater Vehicles (AUVs) and deep-diving Remotely Operated Vehicles (ROVs) for collecting data well below the sea’s surface.
The Endurance is there, just waiting to be found, as the 2016 discovery of Terror proved.
The bigger picture though, appropriate to the increasingly heated conversation about climate change due in the coming year, is all this melting ice — in both polar regions — and what it means to the planet’s future, in both the medium and long term.
As Martin Siegert, professor of geosciences at Imperial College London told The Guardian just days after the iceberg A68 calved off the Larsen C ice shelf in July, 2017, “There is enough ice in Antarctica that if it all melted, or even just flowed into the ocean, sea levels [would] rise by 60 metres.”
Of course, as the Shackleton expedition proved — not to mention the disastrous Robert Falcon Scott “Scott of the Antarctic” expedition just three years earlier, Antarctica has a way of dashing the best laid schemes o’ mice an’ men.
“Antarctica is a place of extremes,” John Dowdeswell, director of Cambridge University’s Scott Polar Research Institute and the Weddell Sea expedition’s chief scientist, told Guardian science editor Ian Sample just days ago.
“But if we are that close to one of the most iconic vessels in polar exploration, we have got to go and look for it.”