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University of Portsmouth scientists head to South Pole with Royal Navy ice patrol ship

Revolution Plastics Institute

4 min read Partner content

The effects of tourism and climate change in the Antarctic will be put under the microscope by scientists from the University of Portsmouth this Christmas.

The effects of tourism and climate change in the Antarctic will be put under the microscope by scientists from the University of Portsmouth this Christmas. 

The scientists will be living on board HMS Protector, the Royal Navy’s icebreaker, during the ship’s annual mission to the Antarctic.  Living alongside the crew, the two scientists from Portsmouth will be calling the freezing waters of the Southern Ocean home for five weeks during December and January. 

The trip will help gather important evidence about the potential pollution caused by increased tourism in the area, as well as crucial data on how glaciers are being affected by climate change.

"There has been a steady increase in cruise ship tourism and certain bays on the Antarctic Peninsula are now regularly visited by cruise ships.  We need to understand more about how this trend is affecting this beautiful but fragile ecosystem."

– Professor Fay Couceiro, Professor of Environmental Pollution at the University of Portsmouth

A record 105,331 people visited Antarctica during the 2022-23 season, travelling on one of 50 cruise ships a day, according to the International Association of Antarctica Tour Operators. This trend is expected to grow. 

Professor Fay Couceiro will be travelling on HMS Projector to study the impact of cruise ships on marine pollution on the west coast of the Antarctic Peninsula. Fay will collect samples of water and sea bed sediment from these bays and compare them to samples from sites undisturbed by tourism.

Professor Couceiro says: “There has been a steady increase in cruise ship tourism and certain bays on the Antarctic Peninsula are now regularly visited by cruise ships.  We need to understand more about how this trend is affecting this beautiful but fragile ecosystem. I will be looking for concentrations of heavy metals, microplastics and antimicrobial resistance genes to determine if there are differences between the sites and if any pollution found is linked to the increased tourism.”

"The effects of climate change are a major concern in the region. The Antarctic Peninsula has witnessed some of the most rapid warming on earth in the last 70 years."

– Dr Clare Boston, Senior Lecturer at the University of Portsmouth

With the help of the Royal Navy crew, Dr Clare Boston will be undertaking bathymetric surveys of the sea floor using HMS Protector’s multi-beam sonar in previously undocumented glacier bays to map glacial landforms. These landforms document patterns of glacier recession and can give information on recent glacier change and glacial processes. Clare is also hoping to be able to sample some glacially-deposited rocks on land for surface exposure dating. This technique is used to date when the rock was deposited, which will give an indication of when the land was last covered by glacier ice. 

Dr Boston says: “The effects of climate change are a major concern in the region. The Antarctic Peninsula has witnessed some of the most rapid warming on earth in the last 70 years. Better understanding of both recent glacier change and longer-term dynamics of ice sheet recession is important for improving predictions of how glaciers on the Antarctic Peninsula will respond to future climate change.”

"We are delighted to be able to welcome the University of Portsmouth scientists onboard to assist with their research into climate change and the effect of tourism on the fragile ecosystems in Antarctica."

– Captain Milly Ingham, Royal Navy, Captain of HMS Protector

HMS Protector is equipped with everything needed to assist the scientists with their research projects. The ship has a full sonar suite as well as a small survey boat equipped with a multi-beam echo sounding system that can survey the sea floor at shallow depths, close to calving glacier margins. High tech-equipment is used to collect data quickly and accurately in extreme conditions.

Captain Milly Ingham, Royal Navy, Captain of HMS Protector says: “We are delighted to be able to welcome the University of Portsmouth scientists onboard to assist with their research into climate change and the effect of tourism on the fragile ecosystems in Antarctica”.

“Their research, alongside the work of the ship, collecting data for the UK Hydrographic Office and the British Antarctic Survey, demonstrate the Royal Navy’s longstanding involvement in the region, which started with Captain Cook in the 18th Century.”

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