Leaving Lyttelton

Ross Sea Voyage Update #1: Leaving Lyttelton

6 January 2024

The Ross Sea Voyage 2024 is underway. Seven scientists from the Antarctic Science Platform departed Lyttleton at 1700, on 6 January aboard Italy’s RV Laura Bassi icebreaker, with around 25 Italian colleagues.

The research vessel had embarked on this climate-focused mission in late November, Italian Icebreaker Laura Bassi Embarks on Antarctic Mission with Cutting-Edge Scientific Upgrades.

The initial New Zealand team includes NIWA oceanographers, University of Otago past-climate researchers, and an ecologist from Australia's Monash University. We’ll pick up the remaining five New Zealand team members in a few weeks’ time (four from NIWA, one from the University of Waikato), prior to transecting across the front of the ice shelf. 

NIWA’s Jasmin McInerney gave a well-received karakia to send us off – primarily seeking that we be favoured with good weather. This first leg of the voyage is around six days and includes crossing the Antarctic Circumpolar Current and navigating the sea ice. At this stage, the sea ice looks manageable, concentrated in a particular region to the north of Cape Adare. 

You can check out our planned route on the voyage webpage.

2024 01 05 LB in dock Craig Stevens

The RV Laura Bassi (in Lyttelton) is an icebreaking research vessel operated by the Italian National Institute for Oceanography and Applied Geophysics. Photo by Craig Stevens.

Freight in stockyard C Stevens

Some of the research equipment that was stored at a port transport yard, ready to be loaded onto the RV Laura Bassi for the Ross Sea voyage. Photo by Craig Stevens.

Our science questions focus on the connections between the Ross Sea, the continental shelf and the cavity beneath the planet’s largest ice shelf.  In particular, we have a focus on the operation of the giant Ross Sea Polynya in a changing climate. This highly variable, but understudied, region is where ice, ocean and atmosphere come together to produce new sea ice and help to ventilate the ocean depths globally. We are also exploring associated past-climate and ecosystem questions. More on this in later updates.

This New Zealand-Italy collaboration represents a remarkable step forward in enabling New Zealand science to access parts of the Antarctic ocean environment that are beyond our present infrastructure. Notably, the South Korean Icebreaker RV Araon departed a week prior to us to work primarily to the east of us, and the Australian RV Investigator departed a day earlier than us to work to the northwest of us. At the same time, the SWAIS2C ice shelf team were able to capture sub ice ocean data to the south of our target areas.  

All these research teams are committed to long deployments (about 2 months) and the high expense, because they are motivated by a shared scientific and societal motivation: advancing critical science that is needed to address pressing climate issues.

2024 01 16 Drylab on board Craig Stevens

Working in dry lab aboard the RV Laura Bassi. Photo by Craig Stevens.

This update was sent from the ship by New Zealand voyage leader Prof Craig Stevens and revised by the NZ-based communications team.

Voyage Science

The New Zealand science plan has three key objectives.

Ross Sea Polynya

Polynya are sea ice production factories. They are (i) difficult places to make measurements and (ii) poorly represented in climate models – and knowledge of them is critical at a time of rapidly declining sea ice. Our goal for the voyage is to deploy state of the art sensors designed to operate and gather information over a range of spatial and temporal scales, to develop new knowledge of Antarctica’s most productive polynya – the Ross Sea Polynya.

Ross Sea region Marine Protected Area (MPA)

We will use a range of current research tools, including isotopic analysis, gene-scaping, eDNA, acoustics, gathering of key environmental measurements, and deployment of ROVs and ocean gliders, to study Ross Sea pelagic and benthic (coastal) ecosystems. This data will be used, along with existing and future research, to establish a baseline of the Ross Sea region MPA ecosystem function and coastal biodiversity to determine how vulnerable this ecosystem is to the future changes anticipated for this region.

Seabed coring

An important aspect of Platform research is to use sediment records to better understand how the Ross Sea responded to historic climatic conditions. Knowing how sea ice was distributed, and how that impacted on primary production at times when the climate was naturally warmer can inform predictions of how things will respond when such conditions return. To support this research, we aim to collect and analyse shallow cores along the front of the Ross Ice Shelf, areas that we have seldom visited, to enhance existing transfer functions.