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Freed From Sea Ice: Antarctic Science Expedition Explained

In this Tuesday, Dec. 31, 2013 image provided by Australasian Antarctic Expedition/Footloose Fotography, passengers from the Russian ship MV Akademik Shokalskiy trapped in the ice 1,500 nautical miles south of Hobart, Australia, walk around the ice. Passengers on board a research ship that has been trapped in Antarctic ice for a week are expected to be rescued by helicopter, after three icebreakers failed to reach the paralyzed vessel, officials said Tuesday.

CREDIT: AP/Australasian Antarctic Expedition/Footloose Fotography, Andrew Peacock.

An Australian science expedition stranded in an Antarctic freeze were finally able to sail free after spending the winter holidays trapped in sea ice. Climate change deniers have been quick to jump onto the seemingly ironic situationclimate change scientists pinned in a summer freezeproof enough that it has all been an agenda-pushing ruse.

But, like the polar vortex hitting the northern U.S., weather events and climate change are two completely separate things and both are highly complex.

A weather event is a thunderstorm in April, or snowstorm in December. Climate is a trend of repeated weather patterns, like the history of freezing and thawing dates of a Wisconsin lake. Climate trends are what scientists are using to reveal the scale of global climate change.

This particular team, the Australasian Antarctic Expedition (AAE) of the University of New South Wales was sent on a mission to study the East Antarctic Ice Sheet (the largest ice sheet on the planet). 

On their return however, an arriving iceberg triggered a reconfiguration of sea ice, or “fast ice” that locked their boat into place.

“Let’s be clear. Us becoming locked in ice was not caused by climate change,” expedition leader Chris Turney posted online. “Instead it seems to have been an aftershock of the arrival of iceberg B09B, which triggered a massive reconfiguration of sea ice in the area.”

The irony is not that the sudden freeze proves the scientists wrongit is that it created an opportunity to research exactly what they set out to find.

As the expansive Antarctic ice sheets melt, different kinds of sea ice are forming and impacting the local environment in ways that are not yet understood. Unlike Arctic sea ice, which lasts year-round, Antarctic sea ice freezes in the winter and melts in the summer. 

Fortunately, the trapped scientists were able to make the most of their situation as they took time to continue collecting data. Measuring temperature, ocean salinity, and taking notes on the surrounding ice contributed to their record collection. Biologists on board also continued to study the penguins and leopard seals. 

Though it takes time to synthesize data, oceanographer Erik Van Sebille has already made some discoveries; particularly that the water beneath the East Antarctic ice sheet is less salty than historically recorded. This is globally significant because conditions in this area (wind and temperatures) generate massive volumes of cold and very salty water.

These two circumstances combined makes water very dense, and when this dense volume sinks, it drives ocean circulation that extends around the globe.

Actually, this icy water is important for distributing heat around the planet, since the circulating ocean currents warm as they get closer to the equator; thus, pushing warm water up and promoting ecosystem nutrient cycling.

Sebille’s discovery means that this important oceanic force is slowing down, like an engine decelerating a conveyor belt.

Despite extensive social media outreach and interviews, the team is having difficulty keeping the focus on the science they are performing, but rather having to continuously explain the nuances of their expedition hold-up. Turney remains in good spirits, and has continued to engage the public. 

“In spite of the situation we found ourselves in, the AAE had a conversation with the public about science,” Turney said. “There really does remain a passion for these subjects.”

Alexandra Branscombe is a reporter with Generation Progress. Follow her on Twitter @alibranscombe.

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