Scientists set off from Cape Town to discover secrets of Antarctica

Tanya Farber | 2016-12-20 15:49:15.0
Scientists have begun the Antarctic Circumnavigation Expedition.
Photograph by: REUTERS/Pauline Askin/Files

What's big‚ orange and can float?

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On most days‚ you'd be tempted to say Donald Trump on a lilo. But on Tuesday‚ you'd be referring to the Akademic Treshnikov‚ a bright orange vessel setting off from Cape Town packed to the hilt with scientists from all over the globe on a mission to Antarctica.

Called the Antarctic Circumnavigation Expedition‚ the mission will only return in March 2017.

Research teams will be focusing on the remote continent‚ bringing together disciplines such as biology‚ oceanography‚ climatology and many more.

South African Minister of Science and Technology Naledi Pandor was at East Pier at the Waterfront to launch the mission‚ and said the country had a “strong commitment to collaborating with other countries to strengthen innovation”. She added that she could hardly believe it was only a year since discussions about it began.

Philippe Gillet‚ chairman of main expedition partner Swiss Polar Institute‚ said he had been impressed how‚ a year ago‚ South African scientists “said yes in a split second” when they were invited to collaborate on the mission.

They are joined by more than 50 scientists on each leg of the journey – making up 150 altogether.

Chief scientist David Walton joked that he was assigned that role behind his back at the one meeting that he missed‚ but that he was incredibly excited to be part of a mission that would see 22 projects feeding into the mission's "holistic approach".

"Unlike most cruises‚ selection for this was based on merit regardless of the framework the scientist was working in‚" he said‚ "and usually scientists focus on one region but we are going all the way around in one season. We are likely to come up with new hypotheses about how the southern ocean relates to Antarctica."

Projects would‚ among others‚ explore how nutrients provided by the islands feed the ocean‚ and how damage by micro-plastics are causing havoc.

"The micro particles are so tiny that they're becoming part of the flesh of seals and other creatures‚" said Walton.

Other scientists would look at the connection between the fauna and flora‚ while some would look at the changes wrought by the influx of fresh water‚ and the effect of aerosols on the snow.

Julia Schmale‚ a Swiss scientist from the Paul Scherrer Institute who will be focusing on the aerosols‚ said‚ "an invitation for an expedition like this a 100 years ago read: 'safe return is doubtful'. Today‚ this isn't the case but still as scientists we explore that which is not uncharted territory".

Despite the excitement of the occasion‚ a minute of silence was also held for the Russian ambassador to Turkey‚ Andrey Karlov‚ who was shot at an art exhibition by an off-duty Turkish police officer.

Russia is a main partner to the expedition.

- TMG Digital/The Times

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