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New Expedition Explores Fate of Antarctica’s Ross Sea

In a matter of days I will join a research cruise in perhaps the most remote body of water on the planet, the Ross Sea off Antarctica. In this icy place, life thrives. Penguin colonies stretch as far as the eye can see. Seals, whales, and flying seabirds abound. For more than 150 years, the...

In a matter of days I will join a research cruise in perhaps the most remote body of water on the planet, the Ross Sea off Antarctica. In this icy place, life thrives. Penguin colonies stretch as far as the eye can see. Seals, whales, and flying seabirds abound.

An Adélie penguin on pack ice in the Ross Sea. (Photo by John B Weller)

For more than 150 years, the Ross Sea has been a place of groundbreaking research, attracting scientists from all over the world to study the frozen sea and the bizarre animals that make their livings above and below the ice. The Ross Sea is the most productive stretch of the Southern Ocean, and the richness depends on phytoplankton.

The Ross Sea’s plankton bloom, a biological event so immense that it can be seen from space, is well documented in the height of summer when weather conditions are favorable. But no one knows what happens to all the organic carbon – the very source of life – as the continent slips towards the long night. We will be the first to trace the path of this massive flux of carbon through the water column as summer turns to fall and the waves, wind, and snow unleash their autumn fury.

Ross Sea Polynya (photo by NASA)
Ross Sea Polynya (Photo by NASA)

Over the next few months, I will share stories from aboard the National Science Foundation icebreaker, the Nathaniel B Palmer. I will describe the highly adapted animals that live in the ice – fish with antifreeze in their blood, penguins that survive the equivalent of a human heart attack on each dive, and seals that must use their teeth to constantly rake open breathing holes in the ice.

I’ll tell stories of the fascinating “breed” of Antarctic scientists that spend months in the field every year, dedicating their lives to better understanding the ecology and climate of the Ross Sea. I’ll share the sights and sounds of life on an icebreaker – the incessant shriek of steel plunging through meter-thick ice, the thrill of scientific discovery, the challenges of sharing tight quarters with the same people for months on end, and the fight for the last fresh tomato.

The Nathaniel B. Palmer icebreaker (photo by Joe Eastman)
The Nathaniel B. Palmer icebreaker (Photo by Joe Eastman)

Beyond covering science and life at sea, I will also explore the politics surrounding Ross Sea conservation. The Ross Sea, long celebrated for its rich science and protected by its icy remoteness, is considered by many to be the last intact marine ecosystem left on the planet. More than 500 scientists have signed in support of protecting the Ross Sea, to conserve this living laboratory, which provides scientists the last opportunity to study how a healthy marine ecosystem functions. These scientists are joined by international conservation non-profits, celebrities, filmmakers, photographers, the media and the public, all pushing for a Ross Sea marine reserve.

But the Ross Sea also supports the most remote fishery on the planet. The Antarctic toothfish (sold on the market as “Chilean sea bass”) is the top fish predator in the Southern Ocean and supports a lucrative fishery in the Ross Sea. Plans for a Ross Sea marine reserve are currently under heated discussion within the Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources, the international body that manages marine life in the Southern Ocean.

Cassandra Brooks with an Antarctic toothfish (left; photo by Darci Lombard) and on the ice (right; photo by Barbara Catalano).
Cassandra Brooks with an Antarctic toothfish (left; Photo by Darci Lombard) and on the ice (right; Photo by Barbara Catalano).

Join me over the next few months as our team discovers new findings about the Ross Sea, Antarctica. Follow along during our daily struggle to stay sane in tight quarters for almost two months at sea in the world’s most treacherous waters. Listen in as we contemplate the political barriers to conducting science in this remote and wild place. I’m looking forward to sharing the adventure with you!

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Meet the Author

Cassandra Brooks
Cassandra Brooks is an Assistant Professor of Environmental Studies at the University of Colorado Boulder studying international ocean policy, particularly focusing on marine protection in the Antarctic.