Thick ice in the Weddell sea has prevented a mission to Antarctica’s Larsen C shelf from pressing on.
Photo: Susie Grant (British Antarctic Survey)

A first-of-its-kind mission to study a patch of the Antarctic seafloor that was exposed when the continent calved a trillion ton iceberg last year has been thwarted....by ice. Such is the price of doing research in Antarctica.

In February, an international team of scientists led by the British Antarctic Survey (BAS) embarked on a planned three-week mission to the Antarctic Peninsula, to study now-exposed seafloor left behind by the calving of A-68, the Delaware-sized iceberg that popped off the Larsen C ice shelf last July. The idea was to collect samples of the once-hidden seafloor ecosystem before exposure to sunlight changed it forever, and more broadly, to create a baseline for studying ecological and environmental change in the region.

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It was going to be really cool. Which is why it is with a heavy heart I now report to you that attempt to reach Larsen C was a bust.

According to a press release issued by the BAS on Friday, sea ice up to 5 meters (16 feet) thick has made the RRS James Clark Ross’s southerly trek incredibly slow-going. On February 28th, the captain decided not to press on.

“We knew that getting through the sea ice to reach Larsen C would be difficult. Naturally, we are disappointed not to get there but safety must come first,” marine biologist and principal investigator Katrin Linse explained in a press release. “The captain and crew have been fantastic and pulled out all the stops to get us to the ice shelf, but our progress became too slow....we still had over 400kms to travel. Mother Nature has not been kind to us on our mission!”

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Thomas Wagner, director of NASA’s polar science program, told Earther that, having been on a science cruise to the neighboring Larsen B ice shelf in the mid-2000s, he wasn’t surprised by the news.

“You’re talking about working in one of the most challenging places on Earth,” he said. “Not only is it cold, you’ve also got rough weather all the time, and sea ice.”

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Wagner added that the BAS has a “fantastic success rate” with missions like this, but that with research cruises, as with aerial surveys and trekking across the ice via snowmobile, success in Antarctica always depends on the elements.

“I would say it was always going to be optimistic to get to the Larsen C ice front by ship simply because of the sea ice,” Mark Brandon, a polar scientist at The Open University in the UK, told Earther in an email, adding that he thought the expedition made the right call given the dicey conditions.

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“Working in the sea ice in the Antarctic and Arctic isn’t easy,” Brandon continued. “You don’t get to choose exactly where and when you go somewhere. And in all honesty that’s one of the reasons I love it. It’s that balance between what you want to do, and what you can actually do.”

The good news is, you don’t take a cruise like this without a backup plan. As Linse explained in the press release, the team now plans to head north of its original destination to other areas “which have never been sampled for benthic biodiversity.”

Hopefully, by collecting samples of seafloor fauna in this backup area, the team can still partially accomplish its goal of building a baseline of regional biodiversity. Wagner added that any seafloor sediments collected in this area will be hugely important for understanding past dynamics of the ice shelf, which in turn can help scientists predict the future of the ice as the Antarctic Peninsula warms rapidly due to climate change.

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Plans are already shaping up to return to the Larsen C ice shelf in 2019 aboard the RV Polarstern, according to the BAS.