Lest we forget, the great Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition of 1914-17 (more commonly known as Ernest Shackleton’s Endurance expedition) was not purely focused on crossing the Antarctic continent (the ‘one great main object of Antarctic journeying,’ as Shackleton later described it in South). Much as that may have been what drove Shackleton forwards, as well as being what caught the attention of the British and global media, there were additionally a plentiful array of scientific experiments underway at the same time. These included the collection of geological specimens, the surveying of ice formations, and the study of both land and sea fauna. Adventure and exploration may have been the sexy selling point, but as Shackleton wrote, ‘the first crossing of the Antarctic continent... apart from its historic value, will be a journey of great scientific importance’.
Over a century later, it’s a rule which applies just as much to the Weddell Sea expedition of 2019, a multi-disciplinary endeavour aiming to locate the wreck of the Endurance. Shackleton’s ship was trapped by sea ice, crushed, and eventually sank in November 1915. Yet the potential extent to which the expedition also aims to further scientific understanding of the continent would likely blow his mind. In total, the international research team comprises glaciologists, marine geologists, geophysicists, marine biologists and oceanographers compiled from the University of Cambridge’s Scott Polar Research Institute (SPRI), the Nekton Foundation, the University of Oxford, the University of Canterbury (New Zealand) and the University of Cape Town. Funded by the Flotilla Foundation, the group will work together to study and document the rich marine life of the Weddell Sea, as well as undertaking a pioneering study of the exposed cavities beneath the adjacent Larsen C ice shelf in the aftermath of the well-publicised breakaway in July 2017, when an iceberg four times the size of London separated from the main ice shelf (following on from the collapses of Larsen A in 1995 and Larsen B in 2002).
‘This is very much an integrated, inter-disciplinary scientific expedition,’ announced Professor Julian Dowdeswell, director of SPRI, as he unveiled the expedition at the London headquarters of the Royal Geographical Society (with IBG). ‘What we are doing in the Weddell Sea, looking at Larsen C, is a study that is relevant to the entire fringes of Antarctica and all the ice shelves around it. Those ice shelves are part of what holds in the ice flow from the interior. As they break off, as we’ve seen with Larsen A and Larsen B, the interior ice flows faster. That concerns all of us because it provides a contribution to global sea level rise.’
The Weddell Sea expedition will commence in January 2019, during the Antarctic summer when the sea ice is at its thinnest. The international team of scientists will fly from Cape Town to Wolf’s Fang in Antarctica, then onwards to Penguin Bukta. Here they will be united with their vessel, the 134m-long Agulhas II polar research vessel, charted from South Africa’s Department of Environmental Affairs (the ship itself will have just finished a resupply mission to the SANAE Antarctic base, in Dronning Maud Land – track its current position here). Over the next 45 days, the ship will sail into the Weddell Sea, towards ‘the worst portion of the worst sea in the world’ as Shackleton himself described it. ‘Only a couple of vessels have ever been to that part of the western Weddell Sea since Shackleton and the Endurance sank there in 1915,’ says Dr John Shears, polar geographer and co-leader of the expedition. ‘It’s going to be a huge logistical effort and we are under no illusions as to how difficult it’s going to be.’
Just as in Shackleton’s day, the part of the 2019 expedition that has fired up newspaper headlines is the adventure: finding the original expedition’s sunken vessel. ‘I’ve never known a challenge quite like finding the wreck of the Endurance,’ says Mensun Bound, the expedition’s marine archaeologist, emphasising the challenges presented not only with finding a shipwreck over a mile deep, but also in dealing with the ever-moving pack-ice on the surface, the thickness of which can fluctuate wildly from year to year. As Bound describes, the hunt pivots on the accuracy of the coordinates taken by Captain Frank Worsley over one hundred years ago, just as the Endurance finally descended beneath the ice, leaving her crew stranded in the Antarctic wilderness. Nevertheless, numerous other coordinates taken by Worsley indicate him to have been a high-quality navigator, and hopes are high that the ship will be found at the mapped location.
What state Shackleton’s ship will be in is a different question entirely. ‘She was not in great condition when she left the surface,’ points out Bound, before explaining how both the destructive force of the ice and the salvaging efforts of the men left it in quite a state by the end. ‘If we find the ship, it’ll look like quite a mess. It will be quite a big debris field. But I’m of the view that the hull itself will be reasonably intact.’ If the Endurance is found, the plan is to survey, photograph and film it using Autonomous Underwater Vessels (AUVs), to ascertain its current condition after over one hundred years beneath the icy surface of the Weddell Sea. Further, the undersea drones will document any marine life which may have colonised it during that time. The expedition aspires to also accurately chart the Endurance’s location, so the wreck can be listed as a historic monument under the Antarctic Treaty. Crucially, the decision has been made that, for this expedition at least, nothing will be removed from the site if the ship is found.
‘This is a very difficult place to work,’ says Dowdeswell. ‘Certainly, if it had not been, I’m sure people would have looked carefully for Shackleton’s wreck before now. We hope we’ve assembled both a ship and a team of people that will give it the best we can, dependent on the sea ice conditions that we meet.’
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