The South Georgia Future Science Project

The South Georgia Future Science project needs you! 

The South Georgia Future Science team wants to hear your thoughts on the future of science on and around South Georgia. Please complete our online questionnaire to ensure that your scientific interests are well represented within our review of how future science can be best facilitated on and around South Georgia. As a thank you for taking the time to share your thoughts with us, all completed entries will be entered into a prize draw to win an iPad mini. Please see terms and conditions of this prize draw on page one of questionnaire.

Click here to go to questionnaire

Thank you for your interest in the South Georgia Future Science project. Visiting this page indicates that you are well aware of the ever more pressing need to better understand the rapidly changing world in which we live. Polar research has led to some of the most ground-breaking scientific discoveries of recent decades and has dramatically advanced our understanding of processes controlling global climate and sea level, biogeochemical cycling and complex ecosystems in response to our changing environment. Although the island of South Georgia in the South Atlantic features heavily in the history of Antarctic exploration, in many respects the region has remained largely untouched by scientists until recent years. Identified as one of the most rapidly warming regions on Earth today, as well has hosting the most speciose ecosystem within the Southern Ocean, are just two of the many reasons that South Georgia is attracting attention from the scientific community around the world.

Panorama leaving Cumberland Bay, South Georgia. (Photo credit Jon Watkins)

The South Georgia Future Science project is assessing this demand for science on and around South Georgia within the international scientific community. As well as identifying the demand for scientists to work on or around the island, we will assess the obstacles that these scientists may face in realising their goals and identify infrastructure and logistics that could be put in place to make South Georgia more accessible. To help us achieve these objectives we would be grateful if you could take the time to share your thoughts with us via our online questionnaire. Regardless of whether you have an extensive track record of working on or around South Georgia, are actively planning field work there at the moment, or simply have an idea of what you may like to do there, we would like to hear your thoughts, experiences and ideas about South Georgia’s future science directions and how South Georgia could be made more accessible to you.

Ernest Shackleton’s grave at Grytviken, South Georgia. Following the loss of the Endurance in fast ice in the Weddell Sea in November 1915, Shackleton and five of his men made the epic voyage to South Georgia from Elephant Island. Shackleton’s traverse of South Georgia to reach civilisation at Stromness Harbour in May 1916 secured the miraculous recovery of all crew on the fated expedition (Photo credit Richard Turner www.richardturnerphotographs.co.uk)

SOUTH GEORGIA’S HISTORY

South Georgia is a sub-Antarctic island in the southwest Atlantic. Once situated adjacent to the Terra del Fuego region of South America, South Georgia is thought to have migrated to its current position, 1800 km to the east of the South American continental shelf, between 45–20. Today, the South Georgia archipelago represents one of the largest, most isolated land masses and continental shelf areas in the Southern Ocean.

South Georgia is located within the Subantarctic South Atlantic. NASA satellite image of South Georgia Island covered with snow

South Georgia was first sighted by London Merchant Antoine de La Roché in 1675, but it was James Cook who made the first recorded landing one hundred years later in 1775. Following Cook’s reports of plentiful seals, a sealing industry was rapidly established on South Georgia but heavy exploitation meant that this venture was short-lived. Shore-based whaling established in 1904 and rapidly expanded with six stations in operation by 1912. Over exploitation of the waters around South Georgia lead to a steady decline in the shore-based processing plants and increased use of pelagic factory ships further afield. The last whaling station on South Georgia ceased operations in 1965.

Blue whale on the flensing platform at Grytviken. Photo taken in 1917 by Frank Hurley. (Photograph copyright Scott Polar Research Institute; reproduction postcard). Grytviken today (Photo credit, Richard Turner)

 

Map of South Georgia showing location of whaling stations, now decommissioned and scientific research stations. (Base map by Dr. Blofeld, Maps For Free)

Today, scientific research is the main activity on South Georgia, offering a unique environment to pursue a diverse range of science disciplines. While the breadth of science possibilities is too broad to discuss in detail here, we summarise just a handful of the features unique to South Georgia that make this area a prime location for future science projects. We present these features within the context of the SCAR Horizon Scan 2014 Priority Science Themes.

THE GLOBAL REACH OF THE SOUTHERN OCEAN

The opening of Drake Passage, with the separation of South Georgia from South America, led the way to the establishment of the Antarctic Circumpolar Current (ACC) and the permanent isolation of the Antarctic continent and is argued to be one of the most significant factors in Cenozoic climate evolution. The ACC, driven by the southern westerly winds, serves as a principal pathway of water mass exchange between the Atlantic, Indian and Pacific Oceans and is key to the mixing and ventilation of the world's deep ocean.

South Georgia is positioned within the Southern Westerly Wind storm track (image http://www.fairfaxclimatewatch.com)

Transport within the ACC is concentrated along three frontal jets, the Subantarctic Front, the Polar Front, and the Southern ACC Front. The Polar Front passes approximately 300 km to the north of South Georgia while the Southern ACC Front is constrained by the south eastern margin of the South Georgia sub-continent. Immense phytoplankton blooms in waters downstream of South Georgia are fuelled by nutrients entrained within the ACC as it flows across the South Georgia shelf. Satellite observations indicate that the iron-fertilised phytoplankton blooms north of South Georgia are amongst the most intense south of the Polar Front and form the largest seasonal sink of atmospheric CO2 in the Southern Ocean. In recent decades a southward migration and intensification of the Southern Westerly Winds, largely as a result of the ‘ozone hole’, has been observed. Should the frontal system which supports these blooms also migrate, reduced interaction of the SACCF with the South Georgia shelf may have grave implications for the sustainability of the rich ecosystem and the efficiency of carbon-export into the oceans interior.

Image showing the position of the oceanographic fronts around South Georgia (Subantarctic Front, red; Polar Front, black; Southern ACC front, blue) and the concentration of chlorophyll a in surface waters. Note the intense phytoplankton bloom to the north of South Georgia. (Image modified from Murphy et al., 2013)

SUPPORTING A SUBSTANTIAL BIOMASS

These blooms support a thriving zooplankton community, including the highest abundance of Antarctic krill, Euphausia superba, observed throughout the Southern Ocean. Krill is central to the ecosystem around South Georgia, feeding numerous colonies of marine mammals, seabirds and penguins, as well as sustaining plentiful fisheries within South Georgia waters. However, dependency on krill leaves some species vulnerable to krill-poor years. 1984 and 1987 were poor years for krill around South Georgia with detrimental effects on macaroni and gentoo penguins, black-bowed albatross and Antarctic fur seals. Given the importance of krill to the South Georgia ecosystem, ongoing assessment of krill stocks and population health has been ongoing for several decades. Better understanding of the factors that influence the biomass and health of this ecosystem is needed to be able to predict the severity of threats such as climate change and fishing at all levels.

 

Elephant seal, albatross and penguins on South Georgia are all dependent on Antarctic krill. (Photo credit Jerry Gillham)

LIFE ON THE PRECIPICE

As well as hosting this significant biomass, the continental shelf surrounding South Georgia is identified as the most speciose region of the Southern Ocean. The combination of the early separation from a continental land mass, its high degree of geographic isolation and the proximity of nutrient rich currents represent important catalysts contributing to South Georgia’s evolution to a biologically rich and distinct location. While proximity to both the Polar Front and Southern ACC Front supports the unique and thriving ecosystem and biodiversity hotspot surrounding South Georgia today, there are also inherent vulnerabilities associated with their closeness. The frontal zone represents the range edge of polar and subpolar species. E. superba, in addition to many of the endemic and range-edge species dominating the marine fauna on the South Georgia shelf, is at the limit of their thermal tolerance. A warming trend in the Southern Ocean is likely to favour those species that occupy the more northerly parts of the ACC and that may extend their ranges southwards or into deeper, cooler waters. With near-surface waters around South Georgia being some of the fastest warming on Earth climate change poses a significant threat to this biodiversity hotspot. In addition, ocean acidification may be beginning to impact vulnerable species within the ecosystem.

CLIMATE ARCHIVES

In terms of revealing Antarctica’s history, South Georgia has a wealth of archives spanning a range of timescales. Hard rock geology and geophysics details the early history of South Georgia, separation of Antarctica and South America, the opening of Drake Passage and the establishment of the ACC. Marine sediment cores will reveal records of past glacial-interglacial cycles while lake sediments and peat cores will reveal climate records since the last ice age. Ice cores from South Georgia are much sought after. While it is still unknown what time interval ice cores may document, they have the potential to give us incredible insights into past climate, atmospheric composition and variability in the all important Southern Westerly Winds.

First ice core collected on South Georgia in 2012 http://climatechange.umaine.edu/kuli_south_georgia_expedition

Lake coring at Jason Harbour in 2013 during Polarstern ANT-XXIX (Photo credit, Melanie Leng, NIGL)

Marine sediment core collection from the South Georgia shelf on the RRS James Clark Ross in 2012 (JR257, Photo credit, Fred Wobus)

 

SEA LEVEL IN A WARMING WORLD

While the volume of ice on South Georgia poses little threat compared to the ice stored on Antarctica or even Greenland, glaciers around South Georgia do offer the opportunity to observe and understand the processes that are involved in glacier response to climate forcing, especially tidewater glaciers. The accessibility of a large numbers of tidewater glaciers, subject to warming conditions, provides a unique opportunity to observe processes and enable more accurate predictions of sea level response to ocean warming around Antarctica.

Satellite observations document the retreat of the Neumayer glacier since the 1950s (Image fromGSGSSI GIS). The Neumayer glacier today (Photo credits, NASA and Richard Turner)

SPACE SCIENCE

South Georgia falls within an anomalously weak region in the Earth’s magnetic field known as the South Atlantic anomaly. Since this anomaly is hazardous to satellites and spacecraft, and it is dynamic, South Georgia is an ideal location to observe changes in the Earth’s magnetic field and monitor and even predict space weather, while also providing key insights into understanding the Earth system.

Earth's magnetic field in June 2014 as observed by the Swarm constellation, released on June 19, 2014 (Image credit, ESA/DTU Space) and the Milky Way as seen from Bird Island research station (Photo credit, Alastair Wilson Photography)

 

RECOGNISING AND MITIGATING HUMAN INFLUENCE

The South Georgia Government and the South Georgia Heritage Trust are making remarkable headway in restoring South Georgia’s habitat to its original state prior to the sealing and whaling eras and the introduction of invasive species. The recovery of the wildlife following these pressures will be monitored under the South Georgia Government’s science strategy, but there may be opportunity for additional science to run alongside this monitoring and to better understand the impact that humans have in this environment and represents a unique large scale ecological experiment.

The eradication of South Georgia’s rats  and reindeer will be complete by the end of the 2015/2016 summer season (image credits, apex-expeditions.com, Getty and Alex Cowan)