Oeschger researchers heading for major Antarctic expedition

24 April 2016

The Oeschger Centre is part of the newly established Swiss Polar Institute, and several of its researchers will take part in the SPI’s first major project: the first scientific expedition set to completely circumnavigate Antarctica.

The Swiss Polar Institute is a consortium of Swiss scientific institutions and was jointly developed by the Swiss federal technology institutes in Lausanne (EPFL) and Zurich (ETH Zurich), the Swiss Federal Institute for Forest, Snow and Landscape Research (WSL) and the University of Bern – and it was co-founded by entrepreneur and patron Frederik Paulsen. Based at EPFL, the institute is dedicated to polar research and will make Switzerland an important player in this area. “The SPI will allow Switzerland to collaborate on equal footing with other nations,” explained OCCR researcher Thomas Stocker at a media conference introducing the SPI in Bern. As for the importance of polar research, he said, “The poles are probably the world’s most vulnerable regions when it comes to anthropogenic climate change, which is happening right in front of our eyes in the Arctic, and somewhat less so in the Antarctic.”

To mark its launch, the SPI is organizing the Antarctic Circumnavigation Expedition (ACE). At the end of December 2016, around 50 researchers from around the world will set off on a three-month journey aboard the Russian research ship Akademik Treshnikov. Of the 100 research projects submitted, 22 were selected for participation in this expedition – including four from Switzerland, plus another nine with Swiss partners.

Towards a better understanding of how the Southern Ocean functions

Various OCCR researchers are involved in the ACE project. For example, Martin Grosjean is part of a project that aims to determine the changes in the oceans’ capacity to absorb CO2. The Southern Ocean and the southern westerlies play a crucial role here. The project aims to reconstruct the changes in the wind regime over the past 12,000 years on the basis of various climate indicators, including deposits in lake sediments on islands which the Akademik Treshnikov will visit on its journey.

The project in which Sam Jaccard is involved also concerns the performance of the Southern Ocean. Among other things, it aims to understand the cycling of iron in the Southern Ocean waters and the mechanisms by which dissolved iron is acquired by phytoplankton. In addition, the project will attempt to trace organic carbon fluxes from surface waters to the ocean’s depths. (For more on the role of the Southern Ocean as a sink or source of greenhouse gases, read “More greenhouse gases from the sea”.

Climate information from the world’s oldest ice

The large-scale Antarctic circumnavigation is just the start of the research activities of the Swiss Polar Institute. At the media conference, Thomas Stocker cited the “Oldest Ice Project”, in which the Oeschger Centre plays a leading role. The aim of this international initiative is to extract a core from the oldest ice on earth and obtain information about the air from the past 1.5 million years. This deep look into the climate’s past should help provide a better understanding of the interplay between warm and cold periods, and thus provide information about the dynamics and vulnerability of the Earth’s system. According to Stocker, this project can “truly shift the boundaries of our knowledge” in terms of polar research. He hopes that the SPI can help finance this major project.