Research trip around the Antarctic sets sail from Cape Town

Cape Town - The Russian research vessel Akademik Treshnikov set sail from Cape Town on Tuesday to take a group of international scientists around the Antarctic so that they can learn more about climate change.

On board with the 60 crew members, will be 55 researchers selected for the Antarctic Circumnavigation Expedition (ACE) - a joint project with Switzerland.

The items tied down on the vast ship included two helicopters, laboratories inside containers, and rubber dinghies.

Until March 2017 the scientists and crew will journey through three oceans around the bottom of the planet. From Cape Town they will spend the Antarctic summer island hopping from Marion Island, then on to Crozet Island, Kerguelen Islands, Herd Island, Hobart, Maquarie, Mertz, Balleny, Scott, the remote island Peter the First, Diego Ramirez off Chile, Punta Arenas in Chile, South Georgia Island, South Sandwhich island, Bouvet, and then back to South Africa.

Twenty-two projects made the cut from around 150 applications and were chosen because they would contribute to a better understanding of the Antarctic's eco systems and climate change as a whole.

Asked why the Antarctic's eco systems in particular matter, one of the scientists Julia Schmale explained that her project is to find the makings of a pre-industrial atmosphere - one untainted by the pollutants of chimney stacks and exhaust pipes that have profoundly changed the air in densely populated areas.

Pointing to two containers on the ship's deck, she said air will be drawn in from the outside to study the atmosphere at the Antarctic so that they can get an idea of what the atmosphere would have been like before human influence and the industrial revolution.

The plan is to further the study of how cloud droplets are formed and, with evolved equipment, hopefully produce better weather predictions.

''It is an extraordinary opportunity to understand the southern ocean,'' said Schmale.

Six South Africans

The projects chosen include the composition of plankton, threatened animal species, the presence of microplastics in the surrounding water, the carbon cycle, microorganisms that flourish in the ocean depths or in ice, and the impact of waves on the coasts, according to the Swiss Polar Institute (SPI), which initiated the ACE project.

Six South African scientists will be among the team of scientists which come from as far afield as Australia, the UK, Switzerland and other countries who will study organisms in an extreme environment with equipment that has evolved since those used in the studies of the 1970s.

While dignitaries sipped champagne and looked around the ship, chief scientist Professor David Walton climbed ladders, giving the ropes and ties lashing down supplies and equipment one last tug to check that they are secure.

The Cambridge ecologist said all it takes is a rough patch of sea for valuable laboratory equipment to break, or for the fuel for the dinghies to start sliding around if they are not tied down properly.

It will be his task to make sure that the ship's capabilities are maximised, and that everybody is given an even chance for their research.

They will be sampling the whole of the southern ocean, to get a fuller picture of how it operates.

Upstairs, the ship's Russian captain Dmitry Karpenko showed South Africa's Science and Technology Minister Naledi Pandor around the bridge after she had made a speech wishing everybody well and celebrating the international collaboration in the sciences.

The ACE is a collaboration with the Swiss Polar Institute, which researches the Earth's poles and other extreme environments, with the help of funding from Ferring Pharmaceuticals chairperson and philanthropist Frederik Paulsen.

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