Antarctic Polar Regions | The Southern Ocean

Men Have Always Been Fascinated By The Southern Ocean

In view of its extreme position, its population and its relatively easy access, the Antarctic Ocean has for many years been the subject of numerous scientific research projects. We should recall here that the distinction made today between the several different types of Antarctic water according to their degree of salinity and temperature dates from the voyage of the Belgica. These were in effect the readings made by the crew of Adrien de Gerlache who were the first to draw the clear distinction between the cold surface water, the warmer deeper water and the icy water at the bottom of the ocean.

Before that, Antarctic oceanography had already taken its first steps at the time of the campaign of the English vessel Challenger (the first steamship to penetrate beyond the Antarctic circle) which left the United Kingdom in December 1872 for a three-year voyage covering some 70,000 nautical miles. It was to concern itself with, among other things, the temperatures of the water, the circulation of the currents and the penetration of the light, both at the surface and in deep water. 50 volumes and 30,000 pages of oceanographical findings were published as a result of this voyage.

Another important period for the study the Southern Ocean was the one that successively saw the English vessels Discovery (the former ship of Scott), Discovery II and William Scoresby scour the Antarctic waters under the aegis of the Discovery Committee. Originally launched in 1924 for the study of the behaviour of the whales that had been decimated, these campaigns soon switched to the study of the Antarctic marine ecosystem by carrying out, during the thirties, a series of topographical, physical and biological observations in areas of dense concentration of marine mammals. The first significant efforts of whale protection and markings date from this period: in 1939, 5,219 whales were tracked (1). A reward of one pound sterling (£1) was granted by the Discovery Committee to any fisherman who managed to send to its London head-office the small 20-centimetre tube found in the flesh of a captured animal together with information concerning the conditions of capture, the species, and the whale's state of health. Coming to an end in 1951 because of a lack of funding, these English research findings were considered as the first major scientific challenge in the history of the Antarctic.

Since the sixties, oceanographical research in the Southern Ocean has developed at a frantic pace. There were in particular, between 1962 and 1972, and after the efforts deployed by the international scientific community during the International Geophysical Year (1957-58), the 52 voyages of the American vessel Eltanin bought by the National Science Foundation (2) for the purpose of resuming in a more specific manner (that is to say by considering the Antarctic milieu as having its own characteristics) the oceanographical research that had to an extent been overlooked or pigeon-holed as ancillary IGY programmes. During its ten-year service with the NSF, the ship, which could accommodate some forty scientists, spent most of its time at sea. The observations made on board the Eltanin - on the biological properties of the Southern Ocean and the study of the food chain in particular - have played their part in the modern installation of Antarctic oceanographical bases.

One should also recognise the effort undertaken under the aegis of SCAR (3) to set up a ten-year international research programme (between 1978 and 1988), the BIOMASS programme (Biological Investigations of Marine Antarctic Systems and Stocks), for the purpose of understanding the functioning of this huge ecosystem; it was a question of putting into place a management system respecting the great ecological balances and being able to provide the political authorities with an amalgam of scientific information enabling them to take the decisions, in full knowledge of the facts, concerning the exploitation of living resources other than whales in the Antarctic waters. 16 ships and 12 nations took part in this gigantic adventure; the programme studied the krill population in particular (see the section on krill) and resulted in the creation, by SCAR at Cambridge, of a world centre for oceanographical information concerning the condition of the ice, the temperature and the chemical composition of the seawater (nutrient salts in particular), the speed and path of the currents, the physical characteristics of the water mass, the animal and vegetable stocks and the condition of the flora and fauna.

It was during the course of the BIOMASS programme campaigns that scientists used microprocessors enabling immediate analysis of the measurements relating to seawater temperature and salinity in order to be able to identify the water mass at the very point where the samples were taken.

With the same concern for enhanced protection and management of the environment of the southern waters, a convention was adopted in 1980 by the signatory countries to the Treaty of Washington on the Antarctic, the CCAMLR, Convention for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources; this convention stipulates that industrial fishing activity cannot exceed the stage beyond which all natural regeneration of the marine populations and maintenance of stock becomes impossible, and that the balance between the various species is to be maintained.

These days, the Antarctic Ocean is more than ever the focus of so much attention. And one can no longer count the number of countries involved in southern oceanographical research, the number of symposia, seminars and publication on the subject of the Southern Ocean, the number of international research programmes initiated (5) for closer study of this mysterious and largest annular sea in the world; in Belgium also, a large part of the projects funded by scientific policy concerns the Southern Ocean.

The multiplication of these research programmes and conventions concerning the Southern Ocean is to be put in parallel with the three stages that have marked oceanographical knowledge during the last quarter of the century.

  • 1/ Oceanographers initially realised, following the IGY, that the southern waters were more complicated than they had thought, and that the ocean which at that time was called the "Antarctic Ice Ocean" did not necessarily function according to the same configurations as the other oceans of the world.
  • 2/ Some fifteen years later, when the United States began to initiate oceanographical research programmes and international attention became gradually more focused on the Southern Ocean, the scientific community came to the conclusion that the latter had to be playing a paramount role in the global circulation of the other oceans of the world.
  • 3/ Finally, the latest stage at this time: after having proceeded step by step in the advance of knowledge, it is known today that the Southern Ocean is far from being, as had once been thought, a homogenous system, and that therefore study of it requires highly evolved scientific discernment; if, for example, measurements show that the primary production of the southern waters is poor at a given place, other observations could very well indicate that the same primary production is richer 1,000 to 2,000 kilometres away, or at a different time of year, or again in different atmospheric conditions.

The reasons for this growing interest in the study of southern waters can be summarised into two main categories: economic and environmental. On the one hand, krill resources could provide a solution for the malnutrition (human and animal) that the world is experiencing today; and to plan industrial harvesting of this shrimp (6) without endangering the survival of the species and causing imbalance within the southern marine ecosystem of which it is the key species, the environment in which it evolves must of course be known to the last detail.

On the other hand, as the Southern Ocean is playing a pivotal role in the functioning of the other oceans and in ocean/atmosphere exchanges, researchers considered it to be of paramount importance to intensify the research so that they could provide information that is as complete as possible at the time when the crucial decisions had to be taken.


(1) A History of Antarctic Science, G.E. Fogg, Cambridge University Press, 1992, p 211.

(2) The National Science Foundation (NSF). Created in 1950 in the United States, the NSF is an independent American government agency charged with the promotion of science and engineering through scientific programmes at an annual cost of $3.3 billion (1996 figures) covering 20,000 research and education projects. As far as the funds allocated to scientific Antarctic research itself are concerned, they covered, in 1995, a sum of approximately USD196 million.

(3) SCAR is a non-governmental organisation that was created in 1958 at the Hague under the name of Special Committee for Antarctic Research following the advent of the International Geophysical Year; soon becoming the Scientific Committee for Antarctic Research, the committee is involved in initiating, promoting and co-ordinating international scientific activities in the Antarctic.

(4) A History of Antarctic Science, G.E. Fogg, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge,1992, p 243.

(5) among the international research campaigns initiated for the purpose of acquiring deeper knowledge of the Southern Ocean one can mention: International Southern Ocean Studies initiated by the Americans in 1974; the European EPOS programme initiated at the end of the eighties by the Germans of the Alfred Wegener Institute (Bremerhaven); the international 10-year research programme set up by SCAR, the BIOMASS programme (Biological Investigations of Marine Antarctic Systems and Stocks); the strongly American SOJGOFS (Southern Ocean Joint Global Ocean Flux Studies) programme studying the whole of the physical biochemistry of the carbon cycle in the Southern Ocean, and, linked to the SOJGOFS programme, the French Antares programmes (I, II & III) which took place on board the Marion-Dufresne in 1995 and 96, the purpose of which was to understand and model the carbonic gas flows in the Southern Ocean in relation to the disturbances of the climatic system. We should finally mention, in the context of the international community's growing interest in the Southern Ocean, the existence of CCAMLR, Convention for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources, a convention signed by the signatory countries of the Treaty of Washington of 1980 stipulating among other things that industrial fishing activity cannot exceed the stage beyond which all natural regeneration of the marine populations and maintenance of stock becomes impossible, and that the balance between the various species is to be maintained.

(6) 500,000 tons of krill were fished in the southern waters in 1982.