Explorer Jean-Louis Etienne Plans Two Year Research Expedition in the Polar Pod

On March 16th, explorer Jean-Louis Etienne showcased a new project for a 100-meter-high vertical boat, called the Polar Pod that will be used exploring the Southern Ocean around Antarctica in order to better understand its role in global warming.

With the 100 meter high Polar Pod, Explorer Jean-Louis Etienne plans two years adrift

The Southern Ocean, an immense open body of water that circulates Antarctica, is a formidable place. Despite it being a marine biodiversity hotspot and an important carbon pump, its role in climate science is still poorly understood. The international scientific community agrees that in-situ measurements are needed in order to better understand its relation to climate change, but obtaining such measurements is a challenge. Unlike other oceans, the Southern Ocean is not partitioned by continents, so the powerful westerly winds known as the roaring forties, the furious fifties and the screaming sixties drive the Antarctic Circumpolar Current (ACC) around the continent, whipping up powerful storms along the way. To explore the ocean, a vessel capable of operating in the face of immense storms is needed. Explorer Jean-Louis Etienne thinks that the Polar Pod, a manned oceanographic platform designed to drift around Antarctica for two years, is the perfect option.

No stranger to the Antarctic

Jean-Louis Etienne is already well known for completing scientific expeditions to the Arctic and Antarctic. His trips have attracted media coverage, helped research and promoted environmental protection. Most famously, Etienne completed a 6,300km crossing of the continent using sled dogs. In the Northern Hemisphere, he spent three months drifting on sea ice in his Polar Observer capsule to gather data on global warming. This expedition on the Polar Pod has been planned for the last ten years, and is expected to launch in December 2023.

The Polar Pod is not untested technology

Exploring the Southern Ocean is no easy task, and doing it while offering safety and comfort for the 8-man team of crew and scientists is still harder. To face these challenges, a vessel inspired by the US Oceanographic Platform by the name of FLIP, built more than 60 years ago and still operating today, was chosen.

Copying the design of FLIP, the 100 meter high Polar Pod will be towed horizontally to the study area before it will fill its ballast tanks with seawater. This will rotate the boat into a vertical position. Once upright, the Polar Pod’s ballast will sit deep in the water where currents are more stable while the minimal cross section at the surface of the water means it will not be affected by wave impacts.

The Polar Pod carries only a small thruster that allows it to avoid icebergs. Otherwise the platform will drift with the currents. On-board photovoltaic cells and wind turbines will generate power for lighting, desalination and scientific equipment over the course of the voyage. The Polar Pod is an extreme piece of engineering to deal with an extreme journey; the two year voyage across 24,000 km of ocean will see it facing waves nearly 40m high but testing so far has been extremely positive.

Real time data for the international scientific community

When the Polar Pod is active, 43 scientific institutions from 12 different countries will have access to the data collected by the platform. Measurements will be taken of temperature and dissolved gases in the ocean, with CO2 measurements being particularly important. Wave dynamics, plankton samples, chemical measurements related to acidification and acoustic measurements of marine fauna are also among the vast amounts of data that will be recorded for analysis.

By being constantly connected, the work of the Polar Pod will also be available to the general public, and people will be able to ‘virtually board the vessel’ using VR masks. While researchers, oceanographers, climatologists and biologists will be clamoring to get at the data the project generates, public interest will be vital when it comes to introducing policy to protect the Southern Ocean, and ensure it remains a carbon sink.

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