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How seals helped confirm decades of speculation in the Antarctic

Seals have helped scientists confirm speculations about water currents. "

Seals might be the essential divers scientists have been hoping for in the Antarctic. For the last two years, scientists have been collecting data from biotagged elephant seals venturing into the depths of the Antarctic ocean.

Now, the Antarctic Climate and Ecosystems Cooperative Researched Centre (CRC) says the research has given crucial insight into deep-water sea currents and how melting ice might affect climate change. So why choose seals, what was found and why is this relevant?

The seals' agility allows scientists to measure regions previously unaccessible.

Why are seals being used for scientific research?

Since 2011, elephant seals have been equipped with oceanographic sensors - explicitly, the Integrated Marine Observing System (IMOS) - to gather data from otherwise-difficult areas to access. Dr Guy Williams, from the Institute of Marine and Antarctic Studies and Antarctic Climate and Ecosystems CRC, points towards the importance of the rare data provided by the animals - especially in regards to Antarctic winter conditions, which would've made it impossible to gather useful information.

"Several of the seals travelled into the Cape Darnley Polynya in the middle of winter, providing information on the dense shelf water source of this bottom water, in an area that has so far proven impossible to access by ship," Dr Williams suggested. 

The seals' agility allows scientists to measure regions previously unaccessible or prohibitively expensive through conductivity, temperature and depth (CTD) instruments attached to the animals. Satellite relays then transmitted data about dense water on the continental slope; going as far down as 1800 metres. 

Captured data is shared via the Global Telecommunication System of the World Meteorological Organisation, and is thought to report on 6-13 per cent of circumpolar bottom water in the Antarctic. 

Decades of speculation have led to the discovery of a fourth source of bottom water.Decades of speculation have led to the discovery of a fourth source of bottom water.

What has led to the research?

The Australian Antarctic Magazine suggests that, for 35 years, scientists have known about three Antarctic bottom water sources: the Ross Sea, the Weddell Sea and the Adélie Coast. While speculations about a fourth point of origin off Mac Robertson Land existed, researches were unable to observe how Antarctic bottom water is created - until now. 

When sea ice forms, it rejects salt and triggers masses of cold and salty water sinking down the continental shelf. The regions that produces large quantities of ice are referred to as polynya. They manipulate the glacial topography and, with winds, create dense water currents. 

The regions that configure large quantities of ice are referred to as polynya.

After years of speculation, in 2008-09, Japanese scientists from the Institute of Low Temperature Science, Hokkaido University and the Tokyo University of Marine Technology distributed moorings off Cape Darnley to measure temperatures off the continental shelf.

The data from the moorings further sparked theories about the origins of Antarctic bottom water in the area. The fact that information collected through the instruments attached to elephants seals confirmed all speculations only emphasises what must have been a proud moment for scientists.

What were the findings?

According to the Australian Department of the Environment and Energy, data provided by elephant seals indicates fresh water from the region's melting ice caps slows deep-water ocean currents. This means that global water temperature regulation may be hindered, and that the animals living in the Antarctic - as well as humans - may be impacted by this.

After discovering that Cape Darnley in East Antarctica is a fourth source for cold, dense and salty water,  Dr Williams says more questions surrounding how this particular water is formed have arisen. Previously, researchers believed high storage volumes were needed, an assumption now opening up new doorways for discovery. 

To predict long-term implications of the findings, scientists will need to redraw the oceanographic map of the Antarctic sector in light of the new information given. 

The slowing of ocean currents impacts the global climate. The slowing of ocean currents impacts the global climate.

Why is this relevant to humanity on a global scale?

As all oceans are connected with each other; the intense ice formations in the Antarctic winter circulate dense, cold and salty water around the globe. Described as a beating heart notion, these currents - produced in the Antarctica and Southern Ocean - are essential for the mixing of warmer and colder waters, as well as regulating atmospheric temperatures. 

With global warming becoming an increasing issue, the Australian Department of the Environment and Energy indicates that the weakening of Antarctic bottom water flows could have detrimental effects on the global climate. There is therefore also a possibility that the increasing rate of ice melting will slow down ocean currents, ultimately adding to the issue of rising temperatures. 

Interconnect Systems has a comprehensive background in aerospace and defence engineering, being an industry leader for more than 20 years. It provides electrical interconnect products and solutions, including cable and wire harness manufacture. For more information on the best backshells and cable harness solutions, contact Interconnect Systems today on 1800 812 214 FREE.

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