For the first time since Sir Douglas Mawson’s Antarctic expeditions in the 1920s and 1930s, scientists will be conducting climate studies in the area known as the Kerguelen Plateau, in the Southern Ocean.
The Kerguelen Plateau, hundreds of kilometres north of Mawson Station, is one of only three lines of longitude where the Antarctic Circumpolar Current flows across the Antarctic continental shelf, the deep ocean and subantarctic islands.
That makes it one of the most highly productive regions for polar plants and animals, and valuable toothfish, icefish and krill fisheries.
A team of 44 scientists and support staff is preparing to depart Hobart on Monday for a two-month mission on the Antarctic Division’s Aurora Australis, to study the impact of climate change in the Southern Ocean.
Researchers are concerned that global warming is reducing the ring of ice cold water around Antarctica, in turn destabilising the region’s delicate ecosystem.
Dr Andrew Constable from the Australian Antarctic Division said an increase in global temperatures could see a reduction in the area populated by krill.
“If the habitat reduces in size and contracts towards the Antarctic continent, then that will mean there’s probably going to be less food for the animals that feed on krill,” he said.
“Things like whales, seals, penguins, sea birds and so on, and we’re particularly interested in knowing about whether the production of krill will change as well.”
The concern is that the area in the ocean where it is cold enough for krill to exist will shrink significantly, due to changes in water temperature.
“What we’re wanting to do is identify what factors contribute to the northern distribution of that habitat, and is that northern distribution going to move to the south,” Dr Constable said.
The expedition will be an international effort, involving six ships from Australia, Japan the USA and France.
From an Australian perspective, this could be one of the last dedicated marine science expeditions for the Aurora Australis before it is decommissioned and a new ice breaker arrives.