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The Weddell Sea is as pristine as it is perilous. At more than 2.8million km2 and home to over 14,000 species of animal – including significant populations of whales, penguins and seals – this remote frozen seascape off Antarctica is one of the most beautiful and scientifically important ecosystems on the planet.
But 3000m beneath its thick and unpredictable ice lies a testament to its destructive dark side. An unseen relic of its infamous history.
In January 2019, a major and unprecedented 45-day scientific expedition set off to explore this isolated, forbidding and barely studied location, armed with state-of-the-art technology and the goal of gaining an insight into the form and flow of the Antarctic ice shelves. Not only this, but the international team hoped to use their high tech Autonomous Underwater Vehicles to locate and lay eyes on the wreck of Sir Ernest Shackleton’s lost ship, Endurance, for the very first time since it was crushed in the Weddell Sea’s ice and sunk beneath its surface.
Before they set off, we spoke to Charlotte Connelly, museum curator at the Scott Polar Institute, the research centre at the core of the epic Weddell Sea Expedition 2019, to learn more about the brutal challenges faced by the team, and precisely what they were hoping to achieve...
Can you explain the primary objective of The Weddell Sea Expedition, and how the findings might be used?
One of the really pressing questions of our time is, “What will happen if the world continues to warm and the last of the sea ice shelves break up?”. By bouncing signals off the sea floor, one of the things the expedition is hoping to look for is ‘iceberg keels’ – these long and deep trenches in straight lines, like plough marks, which will indicate that the ice shelf has broken up and managed to re-form once before. If we don’t see them, then we’re in a slightly more concerning situation. In short, this data will help place recently observed changes into a long-term context, and assist our predictions for changes we need to make across the planet in order to live with the implications of global change.
The Weddell Sea Expedition has been called “one the most ambitious polar expeditions in decades”. What qualifies it as such?
The polar regions are very expensive places to get to, so if you’re spending all that money you might as well go big. On this expedition there’s a huge range of experts, all doing their own bits of research. We’ve got biologists and glaciologists and geologists and meteorologists, and almost all the other ‘-ologists’, out there together, in a place that’s incredibly hard to access, working on things that could make a huge difference to their fields of research. We’re hoping that what comes out of Weddell is an array of extraordinary findings in all sorts of scientific realms. And that’s even before they go looking for Endurance…
It sounds like an obvious question, but what’s the appeal of finding Endurance?
I think it’s an emotional appeal, as much as anything. As a historian, and as the curator of the Polar Museum, I tell the story of Endurance a lot, and there’s always a point where someone will say, “Cor, you couldn’t make it up, could you!”. And I think that’s it. If we didn’t know it as a real event, people would assume it was too farfetched to be the truth. It’s just an astonishing story of survival. Endurance may have been the name of Shackleton’s ship, but it’s almost the strapline for his entire expedition, too. His charisma, ability to focus his team’s minds and lead them through a physically and emotionally difficult situation to safety, is what keeps people coming back for me.
What do you personally hope to discover about The Endurance from this expedition?
I’m just curious to see the state that it’s in now. Although broken up, we think it’s in good condition. But we won’t really know until we get there and see it.
What is the main difficulty that the 2019 team face out there, and how does that compare to the difficulties faced by Shackleton in 1915?
Unsurprisingly, the thing the team were talking about the most before they left was ice. As we know, Ernest Shackleton went to the Weddell Sea, his ship was crushed in the sea ice, and it sank. The reason that nobody to date has visited the site of his wreck is because the sea ice is a massive barrier. Some years its far worse than others. Luckily, it looks like this year might be one of the better ones. But the unpredictable nature of the ice means the team had no idea it would be that way until they got there. And it’s still very changeable, which is why all of the language around finding Endurance is very provisional – will they or won’t they go looking for it. That unpredictability of the ice, it’s definitely a factor that unites this expedition and Shackleton’s from more than a century ago.
How do you feel about the chances of the expedition making it to Endurance?
I really wouldn’t like to say! It entirely depends on the conditions, which as we’ve said, are very changeable. But my fingers are certainly crossed for them getting there!
Follow @WeddellSeaExped for expedition updates
Words: Chris Sayer
UPDATE: On 14 February 2019, deteriorating weather and ice conditions forced searchers to abandon their quest... for now.