Scientists studying climate change in the Antarctic recruited some unlikely allies for their research. The Antarctic Climate & Ecosystem CRC in Tasmania recently equipped elephant seals with sensors and cameras to get a glimpse into life deep beneath the ice in the hopes of better understanding the world’s climate.

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The seals wore sensors which, coupled with those moored in ocean canyons, provided precise data on the Antarctic environment. The team believe that “Antarctic bottom water,” a dense, deep layer of water near the ocean floor, plays a significant impact on the movement of ocean currents – but they need deep divers to prove it. Enter the seals.

“The seals went to an area of the coastline that no ship was ever going to get to,” said Guy Williams, ACE CRC Sea Ice specialist and co-author of the study speaking to The Guardian. “This is a particular form of Antarctic water called Antarctic bottom water production, one of the engines that drives ocean circulation. What we’ve done is found another piston in that engine.”

The massive Southern Ocean elephant seals generally grow up to 20 feet long and weigh up to 8,800 lbs. The study, which was conducted in 2011, saw the research team deploy 20 of these massive mammals from Davis Station in east Antarctica, each wearing a sensor, weighing about 100 to 200 grams, on their head.

“We got four dives worth of data a day but they’re actually doing up to 60 dives,” Williams said. “The elephant seals … went to the very source and found this very cold, very saline dense water in the middle of winter beneath a polynya, which is what we call an ice factory around the coast of Antarctica.”

“Several of the seals foraged on the continental slope as far down as 1.1 miles, punching through into a layer of this dense water cascading down the abyss,” he said in a statement. “They gave us very rare and valuable wintertime measurements of this process.”

“This redraws the map of large-scale Antarctic oceanography in the Atlantic sector. It is now vital that this new information be incorporated into the assessment of Antarctic bottom water variability and change, and its input to the global overturning circulation. This will improve numerical modelling efforts to predict its response to long-term climate change.”

The team believes that the research will show that there are 50-year-long trends in the properties of the Antarctic bottom water, and that the new data will help to better assess those changes. Just goes to show, if you need divers capable of getting deep-water data, you need to turn to nature’s best.


via The Guardian

Images: Antarctic Climate and Ecosystems CRC and USFWS Pacific