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Aerial view of ship.
Photo Credit: Joe Harrigan/Antarctic Photo Library
The Swedish icebreaker docked at the McMurdo Station ice pier in February 2010. The Oden and the USAP research vessel Nathaniel B. Palmer will cross about 3,000 miles of ocean for an expedition to study a vast stretch of the marine ecosystem, focusing on sea ice and the associated biology, as well as a featured called a polynya in the Amundsen Sea. 

Two ships, one mission

Research cruise pairs U.S., Swedish vessels on 3,000-mile-long journey

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It’s not the fastest route to reach McMurdo Station External U.S. government site. But for several dozen scientists traveling aboard two research vessels over the next two months, the trip is all about the journey and not the final destination.

The Swedish icebreaker Oden External Non-U.S. government site and U.S. Antarctic Program (USAP) research vessel Nathaniel B. Palmer will cross about 3,000 miles of ocean between Punta Arenas, Chile, and McMurdo Station. Scientists aboard the vessels will study everything from invasive crabs creeping up the continental slope to decades-old pollutants infiltrating the polar food web.

“Imagine driving across the United States at 12 miles per hour. That’s basically what we’re doing,” said Patricia Yager External Non-U.S. government site, chief scientist aboard the Palmer from the University of Georgia External Non-U.S. government site.

Yager is the lead principal investigator on the ship-based project called Amundsen Sea Polynya International Research Expedition (ASPIRE). The ASPIRE project brings together a multidisciplinary group of mostly Americans and Swedish scientists to study an area of open ocean surrounded by ice that is the most biologically active polynya in the Southern Ocean.

The Palmer is scheduled to leave Punta Arenas at the end of November, carrying both the ASPIRE team and a second group interested in learning more about invasive crabs that appear to be moving into more shallow areas, possibly threatening organisms on the continental shelf that have evolved without such predators over tens of millions of years.

The ship will first make its way to Marguerite Bay in the middle of the Antarctic Peninsula, where a species of king crabs has been previously spotted on the continental slope. The Palmer will then head farther south, eventually rendezvousing with the Oden to swap scientists.

The team hunting for invasive crabs, a project led by Richard Aronson and James McClintock External Non-U.S. government site, will continue their work within the sea ice on the Oden. Meanwhile, the Palmer will enter the 24,000-square-mile polynya in the Amundsen Sea.

It’s a rare pairing of two polar research vessels, according to Addie Coyac, a science planning manager for Raytheon Polar Services (RPSC) External Non-U.S. government site, the prime contractor to the National Science Foundation (NSF) External U.S. government site, which funds and manages the USAP.

Two ships next to a pier.
Photo Credit: Peter Rejcek/Antarctic Photo Library
The research vessel Nathaniel B. Palmer at the pier in Punta Arenas, Chile. Across the way is a British research ship.

Primarily an icebreaker capable of cutting through about 2 meters of ice at 3 knots, the Oden serves as the muscle on this expedition. While the two ships will work on separate projects for the most part, the Oden will be available to escort the Palmer into the polynya should the surrounding sea ice prove too stout. The Palmer is also an icebreaker but not of the Swedish ship’s strength.

“It will be interesting to see what the ice does this year and how it works out,” Coyac said.

Since 2007, the NSF has had an agreement with the Swedish Polar Research Secretariat External Non-U.S. government site and the Swedish Maritime Administration External Non-U.S. government site to use the Oden to break a channel in the sea ice to McMurdo Station. The channel allows cargo and fuel ships to access the research station at the end of each austral summer to resupply it with everything from construction material to food to fuel for power plants, ships and planes.

The ship’s unique hull design (it is shaped like a flat-bottomed skiff) allows it to break ice not by smashing into it, but rather by riding up onto it and using the ship’s weight to crack it. In addition, a pump system quickly moves hundreds of tons of water within the Oden from one side to the other, rocking the ship in heavy ice so that the reamers break the ice at the sides of the ship.

The Oden is also a research vessel, so American and Swedish scientists have used it previously for various projects. However, this year researchers were encouraged to submit collaborative proposals, meaning both ships will carry large contingents of U.S. and Swedish investigators working on similar projects.

“It’s a great opportunity to do international and multidisciplinary science to understand a changing ecosystem. That’s what I’m excited about,” Yager said.1 2   Next