Antarctic science expedition put on ice due to problems with Australia’s research vessel Nuyina
A major scientific expedition to urgently assess record-low sea ice levels in Antarctica has been cancelled due to ongoing repairs of Australia’s icebreaking vessel, RSV Nuyina, with climate scientists expressing disappointment at “Band-Aid” solutions.
US scientists have this week reported that the floating ice around the continent – which protects melting glaciers from currents and warmer waters – has reached the lowest level recorded, in part due to unprecedented heatwaves.
That finding was supported by the Australian Antarctic Division’s chief scientist, Nicole Webster, who told a Senate estimates hearing this week that sea ice coverage has continually declined since 2016-17. Before then, ice coverage was variable and occasionally increased.
Webster confirmed that “a very large expedition” of Australian scientists – who have been planning to study the declining sea ice since 2019 – would “no longer go ahead” due to the Nuyina’s problems.
“Changes in the season associated with some of the challenges with shipping and the delayed arrival of Nuyina, and the requirement to be able to do commissioning of the scientific equipment over winter, has pushed the season slightly to the side,” Webster told estimates.
Last month Guardian Australia reported that the $528m vessel would not support the remote Macquarie Island research station as initially planned as it was still undergoing repair work at a dry dock in Singapore.
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Assoc Prof Delphine Lannuzel, a fellow at the Institute for Marine and Antarctic Studies, said the ship’s delayed return had created a “domino affect” for important science work. Her team was scheduled to depart in August but the departure was delayed until late October before eventually being cancelled.
The voyage was going to take 60 scientists including oceanographers, sea ice physicists, atmospheric chemists, sediment researchers and marine ecologists to research the sea ice decline, which is complex. Information gathered would have been shared with the global scientific community.
“In 2016, things started going pear shaped and scientists don’t understand why,” Lannuzel said. “Since then, we have had three record lows. We had a big one last year and we’re having another one now.
“We don’t understand the system. We know that it is changing. We want to be there to study what’s happening in our back yard.”
Lannuzel said it was unclear when the voyage would take place and Nuyina’s schedule was “pretty heavily planned out for the next 10 years”. She said the delay would affect the careers of PhD students who were collecting data for their research.
“As a collective group, we are now trying to look for other options to do that work, like potentially going with other nations or doing some work from the continent rather than being on the ship in the marginal ice zone,” Lannuzel said.
“It’s really just a Band-Aid and not the end product that we wanted to deliver to the Australian community. It’s disappointing.
“The last voyage was 10 years ago and having one campaign in the sea ice every 10 years is just not enough.”
The Romanian-built ship significantly enhances Australia’s climate research capabilities in Antarctica and the Southern Ocean but has endured numerous problems since its delivery in 2021, which itself was delayed by close to a year due to the pandemic.
Nuyina’s first voyage to Antarctica in late 2021 was delayed due to problems with its alarm system. Issues were then detected before reaching Casey station and during repairs to its clutch system months later, the manufacturer, Damen, determined the shaft couplings needed replacing.
The vessel is under warranty during its commissioning and trial stages, which were expected to last about two years.