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Why researching an Antarctic ice shelf could find Endurance

12th April, 2018

Next year, a new expedition to the Antarctic will have an unusual dual objective. On the one hand, its main goal is to visit and study the Larsen C Ice Shelf which, last July, calved one of the biggest icebergs ever recorded in Antarctica. But it is also going to search for Sir Ernest Shackleton’s ill-fated explorer ship Endurance. 

Role of large ice shelves
The Weddell Sea Expedition 2019 will travel to Larsen C, one of the largest ice shelves in Antarctica, to carry out a series of geophysical measurements to establish if, and when, more icebergs will form from ice break-ups, 

More icebergs in the Antarctic
Larsen C is the floating extension of glaciers that have flowed off the eastern side of the Antarctic Peninsula and joined together to form one giant buoyant platform. Its northern neighbours, Larsen A and Larsen B, suffered catastrophic break-ups in 1995 and 2002 respectively, that hastened the movement of the glaciers behind, allowing them to dump yet more of their ice into the ocean, raising global sea-levels. Experts are wondering whether Larsen C is also being set up for a collapse.

Establishing the rate of ice advance
Drill cores will be taken from just in front of the shelf. The aim is to establish the past history of ice advance and retreat as well as the locations where Larsen's feeding glaciers have previously rested on the seafloor. Only satellite observations exist for the last few decades, so the expedition wants to see how those changes have fared over the longer term. 

Autonomous underwater vehicles (AUVs) will be sent into the cavity under the ice shelf to map the seafloor and the overhanging ice canopy. And, it is here, that the expedition might be able to find Endurance.

Finding Endurance under the ice shelf
The vessel sank in 1915, crushed by sea-ice in the Weddell Sea. Shackleton and his crew were forced into lifeboats to make an extraordinary and heroic escape across the Southern Ocean. Because Larsen C is so close to the last known position of Endurance, the expedition is going to try to locate the famous ship.

The idea is to get the AUVs in range of where Endurance is thought to be, and send them under the ice to do a survey. They are fitted with downward-looking multi-beam echosounders, which can map out on a grid the shape of the seafloor. The experts can look for any signs of the ship and then focus in with cameras if they find something interesting.

The sea-ice in the Weddell Sea is notoriously thick and uncooperative and even today's technology struggles in the region. 

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An AUV being launched into the Antarctic Ocean to measure the progress of ice shelves

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