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Scientists and ship crew deploy an oceanographic instrument.
Photo Credit: Teresa Chereskin
Scientists and ship crew deploy a CPIES instrument during calm weather in Drake Passage last year. They deployed an array of instruments in the passage between South America and the Antarctic Peninsula to study the Antarctic Circumpolar Current.

Going with the flow

Researchers brave Drake Passage to map world's largest ocean current

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Most people who cross Drake Passage by ship are eager for the two-day journey to be over as quickly as possible. The ocean passage splitting the tips of South America and the Antarctic Peninsula is infamously rough, turning even hardened seafarers green around the gills.

But a team of oceanographers will spend more than three weeks in the Drake in November and December to learn more about the world’s largest ocean current, the Antarctic Circumpolar Current (ACC) External Non-U.S. government site. Drake Passage, the chokepoint where the current narrows, is the ideal place to study the ACC, according to Teresa Chereskin External Non-U.S. government site, a principal investigator for the project and chief scientist for the cruise aboard the RVIB Nathaniel B. Palmer External U.S. government site.

“We’re there long enough so that we see all kinds of weather,” said Chereskin, a researcher with Scripps Institution of Oceanography at the University of California in San Diego External Non-U.S. government site. “Last year, we were really blessed in the first few days because it was ‘Drake Lake,’ and you don’t get that very much.”

A year ago at about the same time, Chereskin and her team, including principal investigators Kathleen Donohue and Randolph Watts External Non-U.S. government site, both with the Graduate School of Oceanography at the University of Rhode Island (URI) External Non-U.S. government site, deployed an array of instruments in the passage to take data on a number of ocean properties — from acoustic travel times in the water column, which can be related to density and temperature, to ocean current and pressure. This year they will collect their first data via telemetry from the instruments.

Scientists inspect an oceanographic instrument.
Photo Credit: Mark Goldner
Randy Watts, left, and Gerry Chaplin inspect a CPIES instrument.

“Our observations will help us understand why the current is there, what forces it, and what controls its variability,” explained Donohue, URI associate research professor.

The ACC is a set of sharp density fronts and their associated currents that spirals around Antarctica from west to east, linking the world’s three major bodies of water — the Atlantic, Pacific and Indian oceans. “In that sense, you can think of it as a major conduit between the [ocean] basins. That’s one important reason to study it,” Donohue noted.

The ACC formed about 41 million years ago when Drake Passage between South America and Antarctica opened. Some scientists believe the birth of the ACC eventually led to the formation of major ice sheets on the world’s southernmost continent, though the theory is still widely debated. [See related story: Open case]

However, oceans and climate are indisputably linked. For example, the ocean current that brushes across Western Europe helps keep temperatures more temperate there than its high latitude would otherwise suggest. Similarly, the ACC helps insulate Antarctica.

But climate change has come to Antarctica, particularly West Antarctica, where glaciers are moving faster and discharging more ice into the ocean and ice shelves are collapsing. The changes are also whipping up the west winds that drive the ACC around the continent.

“We anticipate that the Antarctic Circumpolar Current may be highly sensitive to climate change,” Donohue said. “It is driven by winds, and since the winds appear to be changing as a result of climate change, the current may change as well.”

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Curator: Peter Rejcek, Antarctic Support Contract | NSF Official: Winifred Reuning, Division of Polar Programs