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Southern Ocean Seasonal Experiment

DkNl35jW0AA13iy - Southern Ocean Seasonal Experiment

The South African Southern Ocean community is proud to announce SCALE – The Southern oCean SeAsonaL Experiment, a novel interdisciplinary experiment that spans seasonal to decadal time scales in the South East Atlantic Sector of the Southern Ocean.  

The Southern Ocean can be considered the climate fly-wheel of the planet: it accounts for 50% of the CO2 uptake by the ocean, 75% of the heat uptake and it provides 75% of the nutrients that supports ocean productivity outside the Southern Ocean – clearly a litmus to the state of the Earth’s climate and health.  The challenge is that these functions are changing in response to climate change and the magnitude and rates of change may have a significant impact on climate predictions, climate risk, the effectiveness of mitigation measures and the economic cost of adaptation plans.  

Despite its importance, the Southern Ocean (including the Antarctic sea-ice covered ocean) remains one of the least observed systems on the planet and is arguably the largest ‘blind spot’ of current global ocean-climate research. Oceanographic observations are sparse due to its remote location, which are further accentuated during the winter months when sea ice and hostile weather conditions present additional logistical challenges. This has resulted in a lack of seasonal observations that drives model biases with simulations that tend to overestimate the magnitude and miss the timing of the Southern Ocean seasonal cycle. The seasonal cycle is nonetheless an important mode of variability to capture correctly, as it couples the physical mechanisms of climate forcing to ecosystem response in phytoplankton diversity, primary production and carbon export. 

Addressing these knowledge gaps and uncertainties requires systematic observations of the Southern Ocean air-sea-ice domain with process studies linked to long-term observations and model simulations. Such research will facilitate an improved understanding of the system in order to identify and quantify model biases and characterize the associated mechanisms that will lead to improved climate model projections. 

Through SCALE, South African science builds on its comparative geographical advantage to strengthen its contribution to long-term and experimental observations through an innovative, coordinated and multidisciplinary approach that will enhance our understanding of the mechanisms that shape the phasing and magnitude of the Southern Ocean seasonal cycle, using novel integrated ship and robotics experiments augment with model simulations. 

SCALE kicked off with a 21 day winter cruise on the SA Agulhas II (South Africa’s state of the art icebreaking polar research vessel), which departed Cape Town harbour on the 18th of July 2019 and will sail along the meridian into the winter pack ice and back. This is the largest South African research cruise to date consisting of 93 dedicated scientists and the first nationally integrated Southern Ocean research programme spanning 10 local government and academic institutions. There is in addition a large international contingent with collaborators on board from institutions spanning 11 different countries. The scientists on board are organised into 16 different teams, each with a different speciality ranging from physics, sea-ice, waves and robotics through chemistry, phytoplankton production and air-sea gas fluxes to meteorology, plastics and birds. Each team has packed up their land-based laboratories and set them up on this floating research platform in a collective endeavour to better understand the important ecosystem of the Southern Ocean. 

The SCALE spring cruise will repeat the scope of the work with a longer 5 week repeat transect into the ice on the SA Agulhas II from October to December 2019, followed by a re-occupation (but reduced capacity) of the line during the logistics voyages to and from the Antarctic continent in early and late summer (December 2019 – February 2020). These three seasonal ship-based cruises to the Southern Ocean will be spanned by continuous high-resolution robotics-based observations from a fleet of wave gliders, buoyancy gliders, SWIFT buoys and a sailbuoy. 

The multi-disciplinary, multi-institution, multi-national research conducted on this winter cruise, as part of SCALE, will greatly enhance South Africa’s contribution to the understanding of this globally important and understudied oceanic region. For more information on our key research objectives please visit our website ( or follow us on twitter (@SCALExperiment) for regular updates and images from the scientists on board the vessel. This initiative is supported by DEA, DST, NRF and CSIR-SOCCO.

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