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The Australis sailing ship was able to slip into unknown waters © Courtesy ULB
The Australis sailing ship was able to slip into unknown waters © Courtesy ULB

Antarctic mission complete

Ground-breaking Antarctic mission complete

The sailing ship Australis, home for the last six weeks to a team of Belgian and French researchers, is back from its mission in Antarctica. Aside from confirming that the area is still thriving with biodiversity, the team of Mission Belgica121 also concluded that there is a troubling increase in tourism.

The team was led by ULB marine biologist Bruno Danis, and its chief diver was Francesca Pasotti of Ghent University. It was a world first as such a research mission has never been carried out in the Antarctic on a sailing vessel.

A vessel known as an icebreaker is usually used for research missions in the Antarctic. The Belgians chose the Australis as it is much less disruptive to the environment and can also sail into wholly new areas than can the much larger icebreaker. The CO2 emissions, for instance, were 140 times lower than those of a traditional icebreaker

The ship travelled to 15 Antarctic stations, collecting more than 1,700 samples in just 22 days, many more than the usual icebreaker mission. The Australis was also able to venture into areas that are inaccessible to larger ships.

This let the researchers collect samples in places where few or none had ever been collected before, at depths of up to 20 metres. They recorded high levels of biodiversity, especially in terms of the combinations of species observed.

“This is good news, as biodiversity is often synonymous with resilience – that is, the ability of an ecosystem to return to its original state following a disruption,” said Danis. “The combinations of species appear to be directly linked to the condition of their environment, and more specifically to the state of the ice and the exposure to surrounding masses of water. This is contrary to what the literature generally suggests.”

The samples collected will now undergo careful analysis using genetic and isotopic approaches. The analyses will provide insight into how Antarctic marine ecosystems are responding to climate change, including water temperature, salinity and the rapid melting of coastal glaciers.

Another of the expedition’s purposes was to quantify the effects of human activity on this environment that, while generally considered to be protected, is becoming ever more impacted by tourism. The researchers samples at eight stations will allow them to ascertain the extent to which the Antarctic Peninsula is contaminated by micro-plastics and their co-contaminants.

“We could not help but notice the high level of tourism activity in the area we were studying,” said Danis. “Many ships were sailing nearby, some of them with thousands of tourists aboard. The region is nearing 70,000 visitors annually. Fortunately, it’s still highly regulated.”

The researchers have also discovered refuse on certain sites, probably left behind in the 1980s. Some of it was taken away by the Australis.

A documentary film, made possible by a crowdfunding campaign, is being produced about the research journey and released at the end of the year.

by Flanders Today

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