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Belgian researchers are about to set sail to Antarctica

The sailing ship Australis will take the researchers from Argentina to the Antarctic Peninsula. | © Ben Wallis, Ocean Expeditions

On 19 February, nine Belgian scientists will embark on a unique mission to study marine biodiversity and microplastics in the Southern Ocean.

The team will be led by marine biologist Bruno Danis (ULB) and includes Henrik Christiansen and Franz Heindler from the KU Leuven Ecology, Evolution and Biodiversity Conservation unit.

For Franz Heindler (KU Leuven), this will be his maiden voyage to the South Pole: “I’ve never been to Antarctica before, and I’m incredibly excited to be part of this expedition. We will leave from Ushuaia in Argentina and head south to Antarctica, crossing the Drake Passage on the way there.” Henrik Christiansen (KU Leuven) has already been on many research cruises, “but I’ve never been on a long and remote expedition with such a small ship.” 

The sailing ship is indeed what makes the Belgica121 expedition truly unique. This type of ship has a smaller impact on the environment and is nimble enough to reach areas that have not yet been explored by the massive icebreakers used by other research teams. 

Climate change and Antarctic marine life

The expedition aims to study how Antarctic marine ecosystems respond to climate change, especially in shallow waters.

“Antarctic marine ecosystems used to be well preserved, but they’re now bearing the brunt of rapid environmental changes,” Bruno Danis explains. “These changes manifest as an increase in water temperatures, changes in salinity, and rapid melting of glaciers bordering the ocean. All this has a direct impact on biodiversity.”

Our main focus will be on the fish in the Southern Ocean: how they live, what they eat, how different populations are genetically connected.

The KU Leuven delegation will focus on the fish in the Southern Ocean. Franz Heindler: “The main emphasis will be on how these fish live, what they eat, and how different populations are genetically connected. Other team members will be looking at seabirds, starfish, mussels, zooplankton, or bacteria, and all these projects will be going on onboard at the same time. We’ll bring home a lot of samples to analyse after the expedition.”

“We will use various fishing methods and collect water samples from which we can extract DNA,” Henrik Christiansen adds. “With this environmental DNA – for instance from animal skin cells left behind in the water – it may be possible to survey biodiversity non-invasively. And good biodiversity data are crucial to detect and monitor responses to climate change and other processes.”

Microplastics in the Southern Ocean

Another topic of interest is the presence of microplastics in the Southern Ocean.

“Sadly, recent articles suggest that plastic microparticles from tourist areas have drifted towards Antarctica,” Danis explains. “Detecting and quantifying potential plastic contamination and determining its distribution between the various components of the marine system are some of the steps required to estimate its impact on ocean ecosystems.”

In collaboration with other institutions, the team will look into the contaminants (e.g. metal and persistent organic pollutants) that plastics appear to disperse over large areas.

Risky business

In February 2018, the team had already set sail to Antarctica for a similar mission, called Belgica120. Due to technical difficulties with the ship, however, they had to turn around before reaching their destination – a very bitter pill to swallow.

This time, they’re determined to reach the Gerlache Strait. The team will leave on 19 February and return to Belgium on 28 March. 

Delaying the expedition is not an option, as the team don’t want their ship to be frozen in during the Antarctic winter. This unfortunate fate befell the crew of the very first Belgica expedition, which included the famous explorer Roald Amundsen. On 16 August 1897, the original Belgica set sail from Antwerp under the command of Adrien de Gerlache. This expedition was the first scientific expedition to reach Antarctica, and the first to overwinter in its extreme conditions. The crew was poorly equipped and suffered months of extreme hardship until they were finally freed from the ice in February 1899. 

The Belgica121 expedition is part of the RECTO project, funded by BELSPO.

Regular updates on the expedition will be posted on the team blog ( Franz Heindler will also post ‘Behind the scenes’ images on his Instagram account (@fmheindler). ​​​​​

ULB, Belgica121, Katrien Bollen

Source: KU Leuven

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