by Alistair Allan
by Alistair AllanMarine and Antarctic Campaigner
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Up in the wheelhouse, Mar, the second mate, shows me the navigation computer which has an overlay of the weather prediction for the next twenty four hours. When the weather is good, the ocean is displayed as a calming blue. Now, there is a huge wall of not just red, but a deep purple, black and red, almost bruised-like, colour that outlines an enormous low-pressure system.

“We will most likely be battling 10 metre seas,” she says to me.

This is what the Southern Ocean is renowned for. With no landmass to interrupt the low-pressure systems as they travel below South America to South Africa and on to the ocean south of Australia, the winds and waves grow and grow until they become behemoths like the one our ship is about to plough through.

This is the toll that must be paid in order to reach the frozen world below.

The sea starts to churn and froth and the storm is upon us. White streaky lines form all over the sea surface, and the tops of waves get whipped away by the near constant 70 knots of wind. The ship pitches and lurches and it plunges into wave after wave. 

Storms, like the one we are in, are predicted to get worse in the Southern Ocean due to climate change. The Southern Ocean plays a critical role in regulating our global climate, acting as a pumphouse for currents all around the world.

Around some parts of the Antarctic coastline, strong winds and sea ice processes produce extremely cold, salty water. This water, which is much more dense than the water around it, sinks to the seafloor (around 3000 meter deep) and relatively warm, less salty water moves in to replace it at the surface. Then the cycle begins again.

It is this process that creates the ‘pump’ for the largest and most influential system of ocean currents, the Global Conveyor Belt (GCB). It transports water from Antarctica to the Arctic via the equatorial regions, moving  nutrients, heat and carbon across the oceans

As the Southern Ocean warms, this pump is slowing down and so is the GCB. This will affect many aspects of our global climate, including the storms of the Southern Ocean.

A rapidly warming climate is on of the biggest challenges facing Antarctica and the Southern Ocean. From sea level rise of about 60cm globally, to a predicted halving in krill hatch rates, both by the end of the century, real action on the climate emergency is required now.

After twenty four hours of riding out the rolling monster waves, the storm starts to ease, and out of the haze appears our first welcoming. A giant iceberg floats by us like a gargantuan statue, the storm unable to break it down. We are at 51 degrees of latitude, and this is very far north for an iceberg to be found. Another sign perhaps of a changing Antarctic climate as bigger and bigger pieces of the continent begin to break away.

For now, as the blows of fin whales congregating around the iceberg rise from the calming sea, it heralds what awaits us as we voyage further south. A huge industry is down here and it threatens the whales we see around us right now. As I stare out at the iceberg as it floats peacefully past us, I imagine what it will feel like to see a supertrawler bigger than this iceberg, shattering the polar silence.

Now we just have to find them…

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