Riding the Roaring Forties – the story behind ICES Southern Ocean banner photo

Science writer Rebecca Fowler, whose photo of researchers deploying devices to collect water samples at latitude of 40-50 degrees in the Southern Ocean is currently on display as part of ICES banner at the ASC, shares the image’s backstory.
Published: 27 September 2013

​​​​​​​​​The photo that was used for the ICES banner shows scientists at work during an oceanographic research cruise in the Southern Ocean. The expedition left Durban, South Africa mid-February 2012 aboard the research vessel Roger Revelle and arrived on the west coast of Australia five weeks later. The Revelle travelled almost 6000 miles, first heading south from Durban to just above the Antarctic Circle, 60 degrees south, and then north to Fremantle, Australia.

Funded by the National Science Foundation and led by Chief Scientist Barney Balch of Bigelow Laboratory for Ocean Sciences in Maine, USA, the purpose of the expedition was to study the 'Great Southern Coccolithophore Belt.' This is one of the world's largest phytoplankton features, which covers almost a quarter of the world's ocean. The feature stretches around the entire Southern Ocean and is made up of billions of coccolithophores, a type of calcifying phytoplankton that 'bloom' each year during the austral summer. Dr. Balch had observed this phytoplankton feature using ocean color satellite data for nearly a decade.

The Great Belt had not been explored extensively by oceanographers at sea until our expeditions. In 2011 we explored the portion between South America and Africa; in 2012 we studied the segment between Africa to Australia. Scientists participating in these expeditions collected data and made observations that will increase understanding of the unique biological, chemical and physical properties of the Great Belt and the factors that affect it. Data and samples were gathered at 120 points, or stations, during the 2012 cruise, using a variety of oceanographic tools and instruments.

Ocean scientists are interested in phytoplankton for a number of reasons.  Phytoplankton are the foundation of the marine food web and they're also responsible for most of the transfer of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere to the ocean. Scientists use the data and information collected during the Great Belt research cruises to determine things such as the types of coccolithophores live in the Belt and the factors affecting their abundance and distribution. This will increase understanding of global carbon budgets, the marine food web and how changes in ocean health, such as ocean acidification, could impact calcifying phytoplankton. Even small changes in the growth of phytoplankton might affect atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations, altering the global carbon cycle, which helps regulate the temperature of our planet.

I took this photo about one week into our expedition, near South Africa, on a stormy day in the aptly named Roaring Forties (due to the 40-50 degree latitude). The lack of large land masses in the Southern Hemisphere allow winds to build across the open ocean, creating strong winds and high seas, such as these. In the photo, researchers are deploying a CTD, which is used to collect water samples at specific depths, as well as continuous measurements of temperature, salinity and depth. Deck work on this day was a bit treacherous due to the conditions, so more people than usual were needed to deploy the CTD, but the combination of bright blue skies and wild seas made this an exhilarating experience.

There's great excitement in working on the open ocean, making new discoveries about the world and experiencing parts of the planet that few other people will travel to. During our expeditions we not only worked extremely hard collecting data and samples, we also saw massive icebergs, witnessed spectacular displays of the Southern Lights, travelled to new countries, and forged new research collaborations and friendships.

Ocean scientists conduct fieldwork in all sorts of conditions, some more desirable and easy to work in than others. But, scientists' dedication to basic research and advancing knowledge of the fundamental workings of our planet helps society to better understand, manage and sustain this precious resource.

​Rebecca Fowler works as Development Writer/Grants and Communications at Colombia University's Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory.​



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Riding the Roaring Forties – the story behind ICES Southern Ocean banner photo

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