Join me on a voyage of discovery in the Southern Ocean
Oceans are enormous, dynamic and intimidating. Even in 2012, the best way to study them in detail is to float about on top, dunk experimental apparatus over the side and hope you don't get seasick. It's also a great way to remember how tiny and vulnerable we are compared with these enormous bodies of water. Oceans are like the heart and lungs of our planet, and they have a scale equal to that task.
I'm a physicist who works in oceanography, and I'm in the Falklands getting ready to face the object of my study in the Southern Ocean. Compared with the historic journeys for which these waters are famous, we'll be travelling in relative comfort. No rigging to climb, no weevils in the food and no threat of scurvy. Our home for a month will be a British Antarctic Survey ship called the James Clark Ross which is dedicated to ocean science. We're starting and finishing at Stanley in the Falkland Islands, with two port calls in the South Georgia Islands. Apart from those days in port, we'll be sandwiched between the ocean and the sky with nothing but the horizon to look at.
I'll be writing here around once a week during the cruise, describing the science we're doing, life on board ship and the adventures we have along the way. I want to share my enthusiasm for ocean science and its amazing richness, variety and importance. We know relatively little about our oceans, because they're still such challenging places to work.
There may not be weevils, but humans at sea are still subject to the whim of the water and the weather. As an oceanographer at sea, you are surrounded by your discipline. It's not just a list of facts in a textbook. The ocean transports you, chucks sea spray in your face and up your nose, changes colour depending on what tiny things are hidden in it and generally rocks your world.
Let's get one thing straight from the start: there's so much more to the ocean than dolphins. Not that oceanographers don't love them too, but they're just the beginning.
We'll be studying three different phenomena on this cruise. My group will study how the top layer of the ocean interacts with the bottom layer of the atmosphere. Everything that passes from the vast ocean to the vast atmosphere has to pass through this boundary, and we want to know how that happens. My specialism is the bubbles caused by breaking waves, which help suck gases downwards and also spit tiny particles upwards. These transport mechanisms are important for our weather and climate.
Then there's a group who will be collecting sediment cores from the ocean floor. Sediment is constantly raining down on the seabed, albeit very slowly. If you dig down through it, each layer is a time capsule telling you what the ocean was like at the time it was deposited. Digging out sediment cores is a bit like marine archaeology, and cores like this tell us about the climate of the past.
The third group will be monitoring a massive underwater waterfall made of cold, salty, dense water that forms near the Antarctic continent. This water sinks and flows over the edge of the shelf and out along the bottom of the deep ocean. It may be thousands of years before it comes back to the surface, and it plays a crucial role in regulating how heat and carbon move around the planet.
I'm excited about this cruise but also nervous. It's important for my research programme that I come back with good data, but if the ocean is too rough or too calm I could come back empty-handed. If my equipment breaks, it may not be possible to fix it at sea. We can't plan the cruise completely at the start – we'll just have to see what the weather is doing and make up the plan as we go.
A full month will give us a good chance of getting what we need. But what if, what if, what if … ?
It's the first time I've been this far south, and my head is full of the historic expeditions that travelled these seas. James Cook made the first landing on the South Georgia Islands, and Ernest Shackleton is buried there. They had little idea about the complexities of the ocean underneath their ships, even though they probably had a closer relationship with the sea than modern mariners do.
But they were discovering new things, and so are we. They probably got seasick and … well, maybe empathy only goes so far. But they were masters of embracing opportunity and that's what I have to do. Bubbles of the Southern Ocean, here I come.