PICCOLO: Unlocking the Antarctic's Carbon Secrets

A ship sails through a sea covered in ice floe.

The RRS Sir David Attenborough in the Antarctic. Credit: Carson McAfee (BAS).

The RRS Sir David Attenborough in the Antarctic. Credit: Carson McAfee (BAS).

Led by UEA's Prof Karen Heywood, a team of scientists have embarked on an expedition to the Antarctic to investigate how carbon dioxide moves and transforms in the Southern Ocean.

Follow the team on their journey.

Over the course of the 52 day PICCOLO cruise (Processes Influencing Carbon Cycling: Observations of the Lower limb of the Antarctic Overturning), they will be highlighting life aboard the ship, the challenges and joys of working in such an extreme environment and, most importantly, the impactful research being undertaken.

The project is part of the NERC (Natural Environment Research Council)-funded RoSES (Role of the Southern Ocean in the Earth System) programme, and led by the University of East Anglia (UEA) and the Plymouth Marine Laboratory (PML), alongside the British Antarctic Survey (BAS) (which operates the RRS Sir David Attenborough), the University of Plymouth, the University of Leeds, and the University of St Andrews. Their findings will be used to inform decisions on international climate change policy.

The scientists on board are hoping to learn more about the biological, chemical and physical processes that draw carbon deep into the Southern Ocean.

The seawater at the surface near Antarctica interacts with the atmosphere, absorbing carbon and losing heat. The carbon in this water is then altered by the miniature ocean plants and plankton, before descending to the ocean depths, carrying the carbon with it. By understanding more about this process, the researchers can improve models that make predictions about our future climate. They will make use of the latest technologies, such as ocean gliders and floats, to observe these processes in places that, until now, have been inaccessible and unstudied, like under the sea ice.

The team will also drill holes in the sea ice to collect samples, as well as tagging seals with instruments which will continuously collect data about the ocean as they dive up and down through the water. The data will be sent back to scientists in real-time via satellite communication.

The observations and data from this project will be fed into earth system models, to help make more accurate climate predictions.

Commerson’s dolphins as the ship passes through the Strait of Magellan. Image: Dr Will Homoky (University of Leeds)

Commerson’s dolphins as the ship passes through the Strait of Magellan. Image: Dr Will Homoky (University of Leeds)

Outreach and research

26 February 2024

23 February – Isabel Seguro

What do you think researchers are like? Probably, the first image that comes to your mind is someone in a white lab coat, working with colourful chemicals. Or perhaps it’s someone in front of a computer plotting some data. These scientist stereotypes mainly come from films since most scientists carry out their work away from other people’s daily life it is hard for many to see the real variety of researchers and their roles. If we don’t challenge this stereotype, however, we risk a generation of children seeing a science career as something that they could not do because it is so niche or difficult to relate to.

Part of a researcher's work is to do outreach, and make our job open, accessible and useful for a wider audience than scientists themselves; research cruises are an excellent opportunity to show an enticing side of our work. This year, one month before getting onboard the RRS Sir David Attenborough, I visited a primary school and asked the children to form groups and draw something about Antarctica.  They could paint about what they think we do in Antarctica and/or include themselves in the painting! They loved this idea and one month later I came back and spoke with them about climate change. I brought with me some Antarctic photos from the previous expedition, which seemed to inspire all sorts of scientific questions.

"I believe we are more prone to feeling we can do something if we can see somebody else doing it"
Dr Isabel Seguro (UEA)

I believe we are more prone to feeling we can do something if we can see somebody else doing it, especially if that person is part of our family, our gender, our race, or shares our culture or life experiences. Women in science are typically underrepresented, so I was especially pleased to see that seven-to-ten year old girls were particularly interested during the talk. We finished the activity with the kids explaining their paintings to me and I promised them that I would take the paintings with me to Antarctica, so part of them could reach the most unexplored continent!

A few weeks later, a colleague helped me to take these photos and I sent them back to the school.

The teachers said the kids loved the entire experience and they felt part of the research expedition. Hopefully, some of them will consider a career in research one day, because we bring back more than science from the cruises: we bring back stories we hope will inspire future researchers.

A woman holds up a child's painting on the deck of a ship. In the background is the sea and some icebergs.

Isabel Seguro with the children's art work in Antarctica. Credit: Natalia Osma.

Isabel Seguro with the children's art work in Antarctica. Credit: Natalia Osma.

A woman holds up a child's painting on the deck of a ship. In the background is the sea and some icebergs.

Isabel Seguro with the children's art work in Antarctica. Credit: Natalia Osma.

Isabel Seguro with the children's art work in Antarctica. Credit: Natalia Osma.

A woman holds up a child's painting on the deck of a ship. In the background is the sea and some icebergs.

Isabel Seguro with the children's art work in Antarctica. Credit: Natalia Osma.

Isabel Seguro with the children's art work in Antarctica. Credit: Natalia Osma.

A woman holds up a child's painting on the deck of a ship. In the background is the sea and some icebergs.

Isabel Seguro with the children's art work in Antarctica. Credit: Natalia Osma.

Isabel Seguro with the children's art work in Antarctica. Credit: Natalia Osma.

Antarctic landscapes

22 February 2024

Item 1 of 3

Drone footage of an iceberg. Credit: Carson McAfee (BAS).

Drone footage of an iceberg. Credit: Carson McAfee (BAS).

Scattered broken ice in the ocean.

Overhead shot of scattered icebergs. Credit: Carson McAfee (BAS)

Overhead shot of scattered icebergs. Credit: Carson McAfee (BAS)

An iceberg and the deep blue sea. The submerged pat of the iceberg can be seen near the surface of the water. the water.

An overhead shot of an iceberg. Credit: Carson McAfee (BAS).

An overhead shot of an iceberg. Credit: Carson McAfee (BAS).

20 February - Yixi Zheng (UEA)

Sometimes I forget how privileged we are to be in this remote place, but those icebergs always remind me of this.

One by one, those icebergs come to us following their fates. I see their figures shrinking and expanding though our windows. I embrace each with joy, and say farewell to them with a tad feeling of loss. Whether large or small, they do not drift fast with the impulse of waves, but move slowly and quietly near in their own place. If they were to gaze around, I wonder if they would notice a friend who just arrived and is now departing. I know it is very likely the last time I see them, and probably the last time they see a human.

Icebergs are glacial pieces that have detached from glaciers into the ocean. Where we are, the western Weddell Sea, they are normally calved from the Filchner and Ronne Ice Shelves or Larsen Ice Shelf and they preserve the features of these ice shelves.

This iceberg contains many blue and white layers. The difference of the colour is a result of the changing seasons. When snow accumulates on the top of a glacier, it builds a white layer of very fluffy snow. This layer of snow will then be separated into two layers. The lower layer is compressed by the gravity and forms a layer of bubble-rich ice, therefore becoming white because the bubbles reflect a broad spectrum of light. Another layer melts in summer and releases the bubbles before it refreezes in winter, so it becomes blue due to the lack of bubbles. Every year, a blue layer of relatively solid ice and a white layer of relatively loose ice are formed. The layers of this iceberg are very clearly shown here as the snow covering it has been washed off by seawater.

Craggy icebergs and sea ice. Credit: Karen Heywood (UEA)

Karen Heywood (UEA)

Icebergs come in all shapes and sizes. Sometimes they have flat tops and steep cliffs on the sides. These icebergs have seen better days - they’ve probably come a long way from their parent ice shelves, and encountered rough weather and bumped into other icebergs, hence their craggy appearance. The flat area of ice in the front of this photo isn’t from icebergs, it is frozen seawater and is much flatter and thinner, maybe a metre or so thick. The seals and penguins ride along on the sea ice.

An ice shelf in front of a white sky background. Cracks are showing in the blue-tinged shelf.

Ice shelf in the Amundsen Sea. Credit: Yixi Zheng (UEA).

Ice shelf in the Amundsen Sea. Credit: Yixi Zheng (UEA).

An ice shelf in front of a white sky background. Cracks are showing in the blue-tinged shelf.

Ice shelf in the Amundsen Sea. Credit: Yixi Zheng (UEA).

Ice shelf in the Amundsen Sea. Credit: Yixi Zheng (UEA).

Scattered sea ice and icebergs can be seen in front of a distant ice shelf.

Craggy icebergs and sea ice. Credit: Karen Heywood (UEA)

Craggy icebergs and sea ice. Credit: Karen Heywood (UEA)

CTD: the physical oceanographer's workhorse

15 February 2024

Bringing in the CTD. Credit: Carson McAfee (British Antarctic Survey).

Bringing in the CTD. Credit: Carson McAfee (British Antarctic Survey).

Retrieving the CTD

15 February - Prof Karen Heywood

We’re just coming to the end of a pretty intensive ten days, putting the CTD into the water about eight times each day. So far on the expedition the CTD has been winched up and down from the ocean surface to the sea bed and back 112 times. That’s a total distance of 238 km if we put all those vertical profiles end to end, they would stretch from Norwich to Birmingham!

15 February - Maren Richter (UEA)

The CTD. Credit: Yixi Zheng (UEA).

Even though the focus of the PICCOLO cruise is biology and chemistry, one of the core instruments on the ship is the CTD, the physical oceanographer’s workhorse. CTD stands for conductivity, temperature and depth and it measures the physical properties of the ocean water: how salty it is, its temperature and at what depth the measurement was recorded. From this we can then calculate things like density (important for how and where the ocean water moves) and tell where the water came from: is it very fresh and cold? Probably meltwater at the surface. Is it warm and salty? Probably water that came here all the way from the sub-Antarctic and subtropics. Is it very salty and very cold? This is water that forms when the ocean cools enough to form sea ice. The ice is fresher than the ocean water it is formed from and the salt that gets expelled from the ice during formation makes the ocean beneath more salty.

Maren Richter operating the CTD. Credit: Karen Heywood.

Our CTD also has an instrument on it that uses sound to measure velocity. It is called an acoustic Doppler current profiler or ADCP for short. It works by emitting a sound wave and then listening for the echo. The sound gets reflected from tiny particles in the water, plankton or sediment, and depending on which way the particles are moving at the time, the echo has a higher or lower sound frequency. This is the same effect that makes the claxon on an ambulance sound different when it is driving toward you compared with when it is driving away from you. With the combination of CTD and ADCP we can now tell how (and roughly where) the water was formed and the speed and direction it is moving at currently. We also have a lot of additional instruments attached to our CTD; sensors that measure oxygen, light and chlorophyll in the water are some examples.

"Every time we collect water with the CTD, we bring up 480 litres almost half a tonne of water!"
Maren Richter (UEA)

For everything that we cannot measure directly from sensors, we take water samples. The CTD frame has 24 20-litre bottles attached to it and the CTD operator can close them as the CTD comes up through the water column at whatever depth they like. The water then gets sampled by the different research teams on board to test for nutrients, calcium carbonate, oxygen, phytoplankton, trace metals, radium, etc. Every time we collect water with the CTD, we bring up 480 litres almost half a tonne of water! Sometimes not all the water is needed and the deck crew have to sweep all that water out of the science hangar after the bottles have been emptied straight onto the deck! The deck of the SDA is kept nice and clean with all that scrubbing.

On PICCOLO, we measure the water column from the surface to the sea floor every couple of miles along a straight line from the deep ocean onto the shallower regions close to the coast. Each time, the ship has to stop, and we lower the CTD into the water on a very long wire. It can take up to four hours for the CTD to be lowered from the surface to the bottom of the ocean and back again. The ship has to try to stay in the same place all that time, which can be difficult in strong winds or when there’s lots of sea ice around. Our data show us how the water properties change from deep to shallow regions, how much water is transported in the currents that flow along the slope between the deep ocean and the coast, and in which direction it is going. This can then be combined with information on the plankton and krill we find to show which areas have more or less animals and plants and take up more or less CO2.

PICCOLO crew members, Gethyn and Joe. Credit: Katy Cartlidge (British Antarctic Survey).

Because we steam along day and night and some of the teams collecting water samples need to collect them in darkness, we have both a day shift and a night shift operating the CTD. Luckily, the period in which it is really dark is only five hours or so. The night team does get to see some light at the edges of their shift.

A CTD being held above the ocean.

The CTD. Credit: Yixi Zheng (UEA).

The CTD. Credit: Yixi Zheng (UEA).

A woman is smiling at the screen. In front of her are two monitors with measurements on them.

Maren Richter operating the CTD. Credit: Karen Heywood.

Maren Richter operating the CTD. Credit: Karen Heywood.

Two men in high vis jackets look at a CTD.

PICCOLO crew members, Gethyn and Joe. Credit: Katy Cartlidge (British Antarctic Survey).

PICCOLO crew members, Gethyn and Joe. Credit: Katy Cartlidge (British Antarctic Survey).

A tray of cinnamon rolls.

Isabel Seguro (UEA) "My favourite desserts are the warm puddings, like the cinnamon rolls or the kaiserschmarrn. After all, we are in cold Antarctica and who can resist a warm treat!" Credit: Isabel Seguro.

Isabel Seguro (UEA) "My favourite desserts are the warm puddings, like the cinnamon rolls or the kaiserschmarrn. After all, we are in cold Antarctica and who can resist a warm treat!" Credit: Isabel Seguro.

A treadmill and a stairclimber.

Yixi Zheng (UEA): "I normally have a HUGE meal when I wake up, with overnight oats, double-shot latte, many eggs and (both canned and fresh) fruits. Luckily, we have a fantastic gym with a variety of equipment to use!" Credit: Yixi Zheng.

Yixi Zheng (UEA): "I normally have a HUGE meal when I wake up, with overnight oats, double-shot latte, many eggs and (both canned and fresh) fruits. Luckily, we have a fantastic gym with a variety of equipment to use!" Credit: Yixi Zheng.

A woman holding up a chocolate chip ice cream.

Yixi Zheng (UEA) enjoying some chocolate chip ice cream. Credit: Gui Bortolotto.

Yixi Zheng (UEA) enjoying some chocolate chip ice cream. Credit: Gui Bortolotto.

What's on the menu of an Antarctic cruise?

13 February 2024

You'd be forgiven for thinking that the food on board an Antarctic expedition would be practical and bland, simply fuel for the hard-working scientists. However, the meals and snacks have delighted the team so far!

Gui Bortolotto (University of Aberystwyth):

Sure, we have a lot of work to do and time is short. Aboard the RRS Sir David Attenborough, researchers and crew spend most of the time doing science. But when we are not working or sleeping, we may be eating… and the food has been good!

Apart from delicious breakfasts, lunches and dinners, the apparently unlimited supply of amazing ice-cream is an always present temptation: chocolate chip, strawberry, lemon curd and cherry swirl (my personal favourite, and of the chief cook!) are the colourful flavours that few people can say no to.

Let us not forget that we are in a very cold environment, and we need that extra energy to maintain body temperature. Did I mention that we are all working very hard, and we need extra energy for that too? Anyway, exercising daily looks like a good idea to balance things out.

Yixi Zheng (UEA): "I normally have a HUGE meal when I wake up, with overnight oats, double-shot latte, many eggs and (both canned and fresh) fruits. Luckily, we have a fantastic gym with a variety of equipment to use!" Credit: Yixi Zheng.

A group of us have been doing a 25-minute exercise every day. Some are using exercise circuits, and others walk outside on the deck.

Prof Karen Heywood:

Here on the ship, all the food is cooked for us, and it’s easy to get very lazy and eat too much. There’s a cooked breakfast with delicious home-made pastries, cereal and toast. Earlier in the cruise, there was plenty of fresh fruit available which was lovely, but now, after four weeks at sea, it’s just frozen or tinned. Lunch is some kind of soup, followed by a substantial main course. Dinner is also soup of the day, a main course, and a pudding - usually one that reminds me of school dinners, such as apple crumble with custard. Main courses typically have plenty of potatoes in various forms - chips, wedges, roasties. Today, it’s lasagne which I’m looking forward to.

"It’s a good thing the Chief Scientist’s cabin is on the sixth deck so I have to climb up and down several sets of stairs"
Prof Karen Heywood

Yixi Zheng (UEA) enjoying some chocolate chip ice cream. Credit: Gui Bortolotto.

There’s always a vegetarian choice. We’re already missing fresh vegetables. There are just a few sad-looking tomatoes left. And there is a ship-wide shortage of cheese! But there is a drawer in the social area with endless chocolate, and there are always ice cream cones available! Each day some treats appear - cakes or traybakes. It’s a good thing the Chief Scientist’s cabin is on the sixth deck so I have to climb up and down several sets of stairs all the time! Strangely, my trousers seem to have shrunk - it must be the ship’s tumble dryer, mustn’t it?

A pale blueish grey iceberg on water so still it looks like glass across a grey background.

An iceberg in the Larsen Ice Shelf. Credit: Prof Karen Heywood (UEA)

An iceberg in the Larsen Ice Shelf. Credit: Prof Karen Heywood (UEA)

Map showing the PICCOLO cruise from the tip of Cape Horn to the Falklands and then south to the Larsen Ice Shelf

Route of the PICCOLO cruise so far. Credit: Alexander Tate (BAS)

Route of the PICCOLO cruise so far. Credit: Alexander Tate (BAS)

a map of the various different ice shelves. The Larsen Ice Shelf C is in the centre

Larsen Ice Shelf Credit: A.J. Cook and D. G. Vaughan

Larsen Ice Shelf Credit: A.J. Cook and D. G. Vaughan

Humpback whale

Humpback whale Credit: Vas Kitidis (Plymouth Marine Laboratory)

Humpback whale Credit: Vas Kitidis (Plymouth Marine Laboratory)

A 35m towering sheer wall of pale blue ice, with some very long icicles off the top lip, hanging over a sleet grey ocean.

Larsen C ice front. Credit: Bob Brewin (University of Exeter)

Larsen C ice front. Credit: Bob Brewin (University of Exeter)

A rare visit to the Larsen Ice Shelf

2 February 2024

The PICCOLO cruise recently stopped by the Larsen Ice Shelf, an area visited only twice for oceanographic research since March 2002. Twenty-years ago, Keith Nicholls, from the British Antarctic Survey (BAS), was on that scientifc cruise and witnessed the Larsen B Ice Shelf disintegrating, generating thousands of icebergs heading out to sea.

An iceberg in the Larsen Ice Shelf. Credit: Prof Karen Heywood (UEA)

I remember looking out from the bridge of RRS James Clark Ross over to where Larsen B Ice Shelf should have been, and seeing a lot of icebergs swarming towards us. Clearly the captain could see them too, as he spent a lot of time looking over his shoulder to make sure his escape route was clear.

We managed to visit the northern end of the Larsen C ice front, and were able to measure the properties of the water flowing out from the ocean cavity beneath the ice shelf. Little did I know in 2002 that, 22 years later, I would be revisiting the same area on RRS James Clark Ross’ successor, RRS Sir David Attenborough during the PICCOLO cruise.

This time, though, we can do so much more. We have a ship full of eager biologists and geochemists with their attendant instruments, so we’ve been able to measure not only the temperature and salinity of the water flowing from beneath the ice front but also its detailed chemical composition and impact on the local ecosystem.

Professor Karen Heywood recounts how extraordinary an opportunity it was to visit the Larsen C Ice Shelf.

Sometimes it feels like you’re living in a painting.
Prof Karen Heywood (UEA)

It’s been amazing and a privilege to be here. Since Keith Nicholls visited in 2002, only two groups of scientists have been here, on the German research vessel Polarstern.  It’s usually completely inaccessible because there’s thick sea ice all year round.  We were lucky this year that there was a gap in the ice so we could get there.  I’ve tried to come here before, in 2012, but we had to work further north on the Antarctic Peninsula because it was inaccessible. Amazing to have made it!

Route of the PICCOLO cruise so far. Credit: Alexander Tate (BAS)

Ice shelves are particularly interesting, both for the physical oceanographers like me, and for the biogeochemists.  Snow falls on Antarctica, and forms a thick layer of ice. This ice flows slowly towards the sea in lots of huge glaciers. When these glaciers reach the sea, they float on the sea - that’s what we call an ice shelf.  Ice is less dense than water, which is why ice cubes float in your drinks.  That ice in the ice shelf is now old, maybe hundreds of years at the base of the ice shelf.  The fronts of ice shelves break off every now and then, forming icebergs. This is a normal part of the cycle of water going from snow to ice to icebergs to the sea. 

Larsen Ice Shelf Credit: A.J. Cook and D. G. Vaughan

Ice shelves are also melting from their undersides where they come into contact with seawater that is warmer than the ice, and from their surface where they come into contact with winds that are warmer than the ice.  The Larsen C Ice Shelf is believed to be melting both ways.  As a physical oceanographer, I’m interested in how much meltwater is being produced, and where it is going. 

Humpback whale Credit: Vas Kitidis (Plymouth Marine Laboratory)

The biogeochemists are interested in that meltwater too. Glaciers tend to include tiny particles of rocks from where they grind slowly over the continent. When they melt, these nutrients and minerals are released, and help the plankton to grow - like putting fertiliser on your lawn.  Our PICCOLO project made the first measurements of how much the plankton are growing around the Larsen ice shelf, how healthy they were, and what’s feeding on them - the whole ecosystem.

The icebergs have been amazing too - they’re all different shades of blue, white or grey.  Sometimes it feels like you’re living in a painting.

Larsen C ice front. Credit: Bob Brewin (University of Exeter)

Keith Nicholls (BAS):

Steaming past Jason Peninsula brought back fond memories, and the Larsen C ice front, a 35 metre high ice cliff stretching away hundreds of miles to the south, is a spine tingling sight. The northern end of Larsen C Ice Shelf has been visited amazingly infrequently by ships in general, and especially for oceanographic research. The interaction between the ocean and ice shelves, the floating periphery of the Antarctic Ice Sheet, has fascinated me my whole career. I feel very privileged to have been present on two of the very few occasions that the ocean conditions have been explored in any sort of detail.


Reployment of the mooring. Image: Bob Brewin (University of Exeter)

Reployment of the mooring. Image: Bob Brewin (University of Exeter)

Instruments (re)deployed

30 January - Prof Karen Heywood (UEA)

We redeployed the mooring today, in the same site, for just for one month. When the mooring was deployed for a year, it could collect samples every 2 weeks. Deploying just for a month means we can take samples every day and get a better idea of how much the ocean characteristics change from day to day. It puts our year-long time series of data in context. We will recover the mooring again at the end of February.

Ocean gliders

31 January3 February 2024

Gareth Lee (UEA)and Joe Laurence (crew) with an ocean glider. Credit: Sophie Fielding (BAS)

Gareth Lee (UEA)and Joe Laurence (crew) with an ocean glider. Credit: Sophie Fielding (BAS)

Ocean gliders are a type of robotic underwater vehicle used for measuring oceanographic parameters such as chlorophyll levels, temperature and salinity, which are then transmitted back to the shore. They are very effective tools for gathering data from the ocean and carry a great variety of instruments.

A woman using a laptop and two monitors to control an ocean glider.

UEA's Daisy Pickup piloting a glider in the Antarctic from Norwich.

UEA's Daisy Pickup piloting a glider in the Antarctic from Norwich.

The ocean gliders were deployed just off the Larsen Ice Shelf. They were piloted remotely by colleagues back at UEA whilst the rest of the ship was busy making other measurements from the ship.

A small orange ship in an ice strewn sea collecting the yellow ocean gliders.

Recovering the ocean gliders (3 February 2024) . Credit: Prof Karen Heywood

Recovering the ocean gliders (3 February 2024) . Credit: Prof Karen Heywood

The ship's little rescue boat recovered the gliders at the end of the RSS Sir David Attenborough's stay in the Larsen Ice Shelf.

An animation from NASA Satellite images taken in September of an iceberg twice the size of London coming close to the mooring.

The mooring has a close encounter with iceberg A23. Image: Yixi Zheng (UEA) with source material from NASA’s Worldview

The mooring has a close encounter with iceberg A23. Image: Yixi Zheng (UEA) with source material from NASA’s Worldview

Sophie Fielding and Gareth Flint listening for the mooring. A large screen in front of them. Gareth is wearing headphones.

Sophie Fielding (BAS) and Gareth Flint (UEA) listening for the mooring Image: Prof Karen Heywood

Sophie Fielding (BAS) and Gareth Flint (UEA) listening for the mooring Image: Prof Karen Heywood

Gareth and Sophie looking pleased in front of a screen.

The mooring replies! Image: Prof Karen Heywood

The mooring replies! Image: Prof Karen Heywood

A huge wall of ice from the horizon can be seen advancing towards the ship.

The sea ice advances on us. Image: Prof Karen Heywood

The sea ice advances on us. Image: Prof Karen Heywood

Amidst a big sea with ice in the background, a tiny orange spot on the bottom left indicates that the mooring has come up.

The mooring is spotted! Image: Prof Karen Heywood (UEA)

The mooring is spotted! Image: Prof Karen Heywood (UEA)

Taken from higher up, we see the mooring being raised.

The mooring being raised. Image: Prof Karen Heywood (UEA)

The mooring being raised. Image: Prof Karen Heywood (UEA)

A crane lifting various scientific instruments containing bags of sea water.

The valuable water samples collected being carefully raised. Image: Prof Karen Heywood.

The valuable water samples collected being carefully raised. Image: Prof Karen Heywood.

A yellow cone and various attached instruments being raised just on the side of the ship with ice in the background. Three scientists in full gear smiling on the right.

Gareth, Gethyn and Kate alongside the recovered scientific samples. Image: Sophie Fielding (British Antarctic Survey)

Gareth, Gethyn and Kate alongside the recovered scientific samples. Image: Sophie Fielding (British Antarctic Survey)

A 3 by 3 matrix of iced doughnuts on a tray, with one clearly already eaten from the top left.

Iced doughnuts to celebrate! Image: Prof Karen Heywood

Iced doughnuts to celebrate! Image: Prof Karen Heywood

A dramatic recovery!

2728 January 2024

On January 28 2024, the PICCOLO expedition dramatically recovered a mooring they deployed on the Antarctic seabed in March 2023.

Professor Tom Bell from the Plymouth Marine Laboratory explains:

The PICCOLO mooring is a set of equipment on a wire attached to the seabed. It is designed to periodically make measurements and collect samples from the surrounding seawater. It is about 80m long and was deployed on the seabed in 400m deep water in March 2023. The mooring has sat on the seabed throughout the Antarctic winter, narrowly avoiding getting smashed to pieces by various icebergs, including A23 (which is twice the size of London!).

The mooring has a close encounter with iceberg A23. Image: Yixi Zheng (UEA) with source material from NASA’s Worldview

The data that has been collected is invaluable as it gives information about the processes that take place during winter, when this area is completely covered with ice. These processes affect the flow of water into the deep ocean and the amount of carbon that the water contains. This is a crucial element of the PICCOLO project, and a major scientific win.

Sophie Fielding (BAS) and Gareth Flint (UEA) listening for the mooring Image: Prof Karen Heywood

UEA's Karen Heywood recounts this dramatic recovery:

So early on Saturday (27 Jan) we set off in trepidation from the Seymour islands, and we were pleased to find that the sea ice wasn’t too thick for the ship to reach the site where we had left our PICCOLO mooring.  The first thing is to send a “ping” - a short pulse of sound to see whether the gadget that releases the mooring is there.  It’s called an acoustic release.  Here are British Antarctic Survey’s (BAS) Sophie Fielding and Gareth Flint (UEA) listening carefully to see if the acoustic release answers.

The mooring replies! Image: Prof Karen Heywood

And yes!   The mooring replies!  It’s there!  Everyone celebrates!   But Sophie says we shouldn’t celebrate until the mooring is safely onboard the ship.  She’s right of course. 

The sea ice advances on us. Image: Prof Karen Heywood

We get ready to recover the mooring and its precious year of data.  But bad news.  We discuss with the captain and the crew and it’s agreed that it’s too risky to send the mooring up to the surface - the sea ice is closing in and drifting quite fast with the currents, so we are afraid the mooring might come up under the sea ice.  Visibility is poor as well, so we might not spot it. No point taking a risk at this stage.  We decide to wait until the next day.

The mooring is spotted! Image: Prof Karen Heywood (UEA)

On Sunday morning the conditions are better - it’s not as foggy, and there is a suitable gap in the sea ice for release the mooring into.  We agree to release the mooring, and send the acoustic signal.   It should be on its way to the surface.  Then we wait, for what seems like ages.  Everyone is up on the ship’s bridge looking out, waiting to see a small orange blob in a large expanse of blue and white.  After about 5 minutes there’s a shout “there it is!” and everyone shouts and cheers.

The mooring being raised. Image: Prof Karen Heywood (UEA)

Now the ship’s crew get into action like a well-oiled machine, carefully grappling for the buoy floating at the surface, and then moving it painstakingly to the back of the ship.  It wouldn’t do for the ship to run it over now and lose it.  Then they start to winch in the instruments one by one.  As each one comes onboard we breathe another sigh of relief.  The big orange buoy has instruments on it to measure the ocean currents. 

The valuable water samples collected being carefully raised. Image: Prof Karen Heywood.

We’re particularly excited about this instrument - it captured a bagful of seawater near the seabed every few weeks, and we’re going to analyse this water to see how much carbon is in the water.

Gareth, Gethyn and Kate alongside the recovered scientific samples. Image: Sophie Fielding (British Antarctic Survey)

Once everything was safely onboard, we celebrate!  But Sophie says, don’t celebrate yet until we see whether all the instruments actually measured anything during the year.   Maybe they stopped working on the first day.  She’s right, of course.

The next few hours are spent checking the instruments, and it’s good news!  We managed to collect some water in the bags. We don’t think anyone has ever done this before in the Antarctic.  And there are some exciting data sets that we’re now itching to get analysing.  

We learn that our mooring did indeed have an eventful year - one of the sensors is full of mud!  We’ll have to see how close the mooring came to that pesky iceberg.  But luckily the mooring survived.  What a day!  Everyone is elated, but no time to rest - the mooring team get busy preparing all the instruments to put the mooring back in the water next day.  We want to get another few weeks of science data, this time more frequently.    But maybe time for a celebratory iced doughnut?

Iced doughnuts to celebrate! Image: Prof Karen Heywood

Our journey south

1824 January 2024

"There are suddenly very few people at breakfast."
Prof Karen Heywood

After mobilisation, the PICCOLO team ventured south, encountering stunning wildlife, otherworldly views and, of course, some bad weather.

Prof Karen Heywood aboard the RRS Sir David Attenborough in the Antarctic. Image: Isabel Seguro.

From Prof Karen Heywood, PICCOLO Principal Investigator (21 January):

We’ve now left the Falkland Islands where the ship refuelled, and we’re heading south across Drake Passage - next stop Antartica! Drake Passage is notorious for its strong winds and big waves, and the last day has been pretty bumpy.
You know the weather is bad when:
·         There are suddenly very few people at breakfast
·         Your cabin looks like a bomb hit it, if you forget to put everything away
·         You can’t walk in a straight line
·         Your shower curtain flies out and attaches to you
·         There is a sticky mat on the tables at lunchtime for you to put your plates and glasses on
·         The chairs have bungee cord around them
·         The fridge door is bolted shut.

Tomorrow we do some science dry-runs to make sure all the equipment we brought is working properly.

Read more about the journey through Drake Passage here: https://www.nationalgeographic.com/environment/article/drake-passage-antarctica-dangerous-waters.

Prof Karen Heywood can be seen on the deck of the RRS Sir David Attenborough in the Antarctic. Ice shelves can be seen in the background.

Prof Karen Heywood aboard the RRS Sir David Attenborough in the Antarctic. Image: Isabel Seguro.

Prof Karen Heywood aboard the RRS Sir David Attenborough in the Antarctic. Image: Isabel Seguro.

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An ice floe in the Antarctic.

A dramatic icescape on the approach to James Ross Island. Credit: Prof Karen Heywood.

A dramatic icescape on the approach to James Ross Island. Credit: Prof Karen Heywood.

A view of an Antarctic ice shelf with a clear blue sky in the background.

Views of an ice shelf from the ship. Credit: Tom Bell (Plymouth Marine Laboratory)

Views of an ice shelf from the ship. Credit: Tom Bell (Plymouth Marine Laboratory)

Penguins run along an ice floe in the Antarctic.

Spectacular views as the the team approach James Ross island. Look carefully to spot the penguins on the ice floe scurrying away from the ship! Credit: Prof Karen Heywood.

Spectacular views as the the team approach James Ross island. Look carefully to spot the penguins on the ice floe scurrying away from the ship! Credit: Prof Karen Heywood.

Setting off

17 January 2024

After beginning their journey at Norwich train station, the UEA team, including Lead Principal Investigator Prof Karen Heywood, made their way to Punta Arenas - a 13000 km and 36 hour trip - on the southernmost tip of South America. The cruise embarked from there on 17 January and is due to return in mid-March.

The UEA PICCOLO team at Norwich train station, about to embark on a 13000 km trip to Punta Arenas, from where the expedition embarks.

On the RRS Sir David Attenborough, the team joined up with researchers from other institutions to form an international research group of 32.

The PICCOLO research cruise will travel 1500 km to the Weddell Sea, east of the Antarctic Peninsula, where the research will finally begin! On the way they will drop off teams of geologists and paleoclimate scientists at Seymour Island and James Ross Island. Those teams will camp there to complete their fieldwork.

From Ruth Airs, Plymouth Marine Laboratory:

Mobilisation or getting set up for a science cruise is such an unwieldy beast. The whole process started months ago when we packed all our kit in the UK for it to be loaded onto the Sir David Attenborough in containers in Harwich. Typically seven or eight scientists will fill a full size shipping container to the brim with aluminium boxes, instruments, and specialist equipment carefully packed and labelled. Packing is a skill in itself. It’s probably most similar to moving house, except you have to buy everything you need first, in the right quantity for the whole of the cruise, make sure it will arrive in good time and not forget anything you will need.

UEA's Yixi Zheng working hard to set up one of the ocean gliders. Image: Prof Karen Heywood.

So the process of mobilisation starts with three or more containers full of kit on the ship and 25+ scientists eager to get started unpacking. We have to make a plan and co-operate as space is limited, kit can be heavy and there are lots of potential hazards/bulkheads to pass to get a single box in a useful place.

That’s once everyone has found all their safety gear.

UEA PhD student Beth Siddle conducts the final checks of autonomous surface vessel Caravela. Image: Prof Karen Heywood.

Once everyone has access to their boxes and their work area, unpacking and set up can start. This is a slow process with problem solving along the way. How best to position and secure everything so science can be conducted safely while the ship is moving (sometimes a lot). Gaffa tape, ratchet straps, bungees, hooks, rope and screws become a scientist’s go-to. We also have to stop for safety briefings and other essential preparations for going to sea. We tend to work long hours to make sure we can meet the deadline of the ship’s departure.

"What are scientists like during this process? Well, we tend to be outwardly pleasant and humorous"
Ruth Airs, Plymouth Marine Laboratory

What are scientists like during this process? Well, we tend to be outwardly pleasant and humorous (it’s great to finally be here and the promise of getting started). We help each other out and support each other. Inwardly most people feel quite anxious until the chaos starts to resemble a working laboratory, and we know we can finish.

In fact, in a science briefing yesterday our principal scientist asked if anyone was feeling anxious. We all laughed because everyone was feeling anxious – it was the last full day of mobilisation. We did it though; everything is safely secured, and we are at different stages of ready to conduct science.  

And we set sail about four hours ago.

The UEA team at Norwich train station.

The UEA PICCOLO team at Norwich train station, about to embark on a 13000 km trip to Punta Arenas, from where the expedition embarks.

The UEA PICCOLO team at Norwich train station, about to embark on a 13000 km trip to Punta Arenas, from where the expedition embarks.

A researcher uses a screwdriver to build a glider.

UEA's Yixi Zheng working hard to set up one of the ocean gliders. Image: Prof Karen Heywood.

UEA's Yixi Zheng working hard to set up one of the ocean gliders. Image: Prof Karen Heywood.

A PhD student checks an autonomous surface vessel.

UEA PhD student Beth Siddle conducts the final checks of autonomous surface vessel Caravela. Image: Prof Karen Heywood.

UEA PhD student Beth Siddle conducts the final checks of autonomous surface vessel Caravela. Image: Prof Karen Heywood.