Back in 2014, construction began on a new polar research vessel for the British Antarctic Survey (BAS), to replace two existing ships – the RRS James Clark Ross and RRS Ernest Shackleton. Fast forward two years, and the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC), the institution in charge of the construction, set up an online poll asking members of the public to suggest potential names for this replacement ship.
The RRS Boaty McBoatface quickly became a firm favourite with the public, but ultimately a name was selected that honours Britain’s much-loved naturalist, Sir David Attenborough. Nonetheless, due to the widespread publicity received from the naming campaign, the moniker Boaty McBoatface was given to one of the craft’s underwater vehicles instead. And, in 2017, it embarked on its first mission.
Professor Mike Meredith is an oceanographer and science leader at the NERC’s BAS. He recently spoke to us at Research Outreach to discuss his latest research venture – the DynOPO project – highlighting the impact Boaty McBoatface has had on improving public appreciation of polar research.
Can you explain what the DynOPO project was? What was the motivation for and background of the project, and what was its goal?
A particular focus for us is the waters that form close to Antarctica. These are made incredibly dense by interacting with the freezing atmosphere and ice, and they sink to the seabed and spread out to become the abyssal waters across most of the globe. These waters have warmed in recent decades, and we don’t really know why – but we need to figure it out, so that we can better predict how it will change in future. This matters for several reasons, including the global heat budget and sea level rise.
The DynOPO project was created by scientists at the University of Southampton, BAS and the USA to study these dense waters as they flow northward from the Antarctic into the Atlantic Ocean, and what happens to them when they cross an underwater mountain chain called the South Scotia Ridge. We believe that the contorted pathways the water takes as it flows over and around these mountains leads to a lot of mixing, and that this mixing might change over time. We hope to find out exactly how and why this happens, and what it means for the role that these deep waters play in climate change.
The DynOPO project has been created to study dense waters as they flow from the Antarctic into the Atlantic Ocean, and investigate what happens to them when they cross the South Scotia Ridge
You recently lived and worked on board the British Antarctic Survey (BAS) research ship James Clark Ross. Can you describe what life was like there? What did your average day entail? How long were you aboard?
Science expeditions to the Southern Ocean are hugely exciting of course – not just for the chance to make breakthroughs in the things we are studying, but also because of the environment around us – the scenery can be amongst the most spectacular in the world, and the richness of the wildlife is staggering.
Life on board typically settles into a routine quite quickly, and things tend to revolve very much around mealtimes. The food is normally very good, and plentiful – scientists often leave expeditions several pounds heavier than when they start! Work will have been full-on – the ship works around the clock, so the scientists split into shifts, with some working nights to ensure that data collection never stops. The ship collected data continuously, even when it was steaming along between target sites, but many of the key measurements required the ship to be stopped and equipment lowered into the ocean, sometimes down to a couple of miles or deeper. Water samples were collected and analysed in the ship’s laboratories, and a great deal of computer-based work was carried out to make sense of all the data as it was collected.
Expeditions on James Clark Ross are typically a few weeks long; the DynOPO was a long one being around seven weeks in total. This was excellent – it offered scope to collect a huge and unique dataset with which we can tackle the questions we are trying to answer.
What are the main challenges of carrying out research in the Antarctic?
Science expeditions are hugely exciting. The scenery can be amongst the most spectacular in the world, and the richness of the wildlife is staggering
Boaty McBoatface was one of the research tools at your disposal on this trip. Can you tell us a bit about Boaty’s mission? And what impact the publicity generated by Boaty has had on the research mission?
Can you tell us about some of the other research tools and processes you used?
What is the wider significance of understanding the complex physical processes occurring in the Southern Ocean?
And finally, what initially triggered your interest in polar ocean research?
- To find out more information about the DynOPO Project, or about the BAS in general, please visit their excellent website at www.bas.ac.uk