“The search for Sir Ernest Shackleton’s lost ship Endurance has been called off after extreme weather trapped an underwater vehicle under a sheet of ice.”
— Thu 14 Feb 2019 18.42 GMT
In the end, it wasn’t climate change but rather weather that proved the difference. The Weddell Sea Expedition’s attempt to find what remains of Sir Ernest Shackleton’s missing ship Endurance was scuttled after rapidly advancing sea ice trapped a submersible ROV expedition members were using to search the seabed floor beneath Antarctica’s beleaguered sea ice. The remote-operated submersible was lost to the deep, in what some might say was a fitting and somehow appropriate denouement to a brave but ultimately futile effort to use 21st century technology to unravel a mystery that has posed questions ever since the Endurance was itself trapped in sea ice and sank beneath the surface on the 21st of November, 1915.
Despite February being the height of the Antarctic summer and seemingly favourable conditions at first, coupled with 21st-century GPS readings based on the immaculate charts and maps provided by Endurance’s navigator, the two dozen geoscientists aboard the Dutch icebreaker and research vessel SA Agulhas II knew when they had been beaten. Without their remote-operated submersible submarine, they’d be working blind. And even someone with a rudimentary knowledge of conditions in Antarctica would know that “blind” is not how you want to operate in the most extreme — and potentially deadly — environment on planet Earth. No one — literally, no one — alive today would’ve been more aware of the potential for disaster. Shackleton and his crew were forced to give up the ghost in 1915, despite having survived much of the polar winter when frozen ice floes crushed their ship’s hull. Their subsequent escape from the Antarctic sea ice on foot and in lifeboats is one of the great stories of human resilience and endurance in recorded history. The lure of finding what remains of Endurance has captivated maritime historians, geographers and romantics for more than a century.
“We’re disappointed, clearly, as a team not to have been successful,” Mensun Bound, the expedition’s director of exploration, said in a statement. “Like Shackleton before us, who described Endurance’s graveyard as ‘the worst portion of the worst sea in the world,’ our well-laid plans wee overcome by rapidly moving ice and what Shackleton himself called ‘the evil conditions of the Weddell Sea.’
“We hope our adventure will have engaged young people about the pioneering spirit, courage and fortitude of those who sailed with Endurance to Antarctica.”
Where Shackleton had to rely on hand-drawn charts based on meticulous longitude and latitude readings, the 2019 Weddell Sea Expedition was decidedly high-tech. The submersible, an Autonomous Underwater Vehicle, or AUV, was designed to map a wide electronic grid of the sea floor below frigid waters more than 3,000m (9,800 feet) deep using HD still colour cameras.
The expedition is not considered a failure, however, as its main mission — completed before the crew’s attention turned to finding Endurance — was to study the effects of climate change and melting sea ice along the nearby Larsen C Ice Shelf, which famously “calved” a monster iceberg and later dubbed A-68, twice the size of Luxembourg, in July, 2017. Strangely, even given the remote location of Endurance’s watery grave, no team of scientists had examined the continuing erosion of the Larsen C ice shelf in person until the SA Agulhas ventured deep into the Weddell Sea this past January. Satellite imagery can only tell so much. Part of the expedition’s mission was to take actual physical samples of the ice and measure carbon readings and other scientific date that may be locked inside.
Expedition geoscientists, including polar geographers, geologists, oceanographers and climate scientists, pointed out just last week that their findings have already enhanced our knowledge of Antarctica’s delicate ecosystems, not to mention the oceans that surround the Southern Continent on all four sides.
The Weddell Sea Expedition was never going to solve the world’s climate crisis, of course.
Thanks to the incalculable value of the retrieved and recorded data, though, scientists now have a better understanding of what exactly’s going on. Good thing, too. The future of humanity may well depend on it, if not the future of the entire planet.