Beyond Ice and Waves: The Journey of Piccolo


    In 2023, we highlighted the groundbreaking work of UEA's Glider Science Group, led by Professor Karen Heywood, and generously supported by philanthropic donations.

    This pioneering climate research saw autonomous ocean gliders playing a pivotal role in unravelling the mysteries of Antarctica's changing climate. Their ability to collect invaluable data, ranging from marine wildlife populations to unexpected forays beneath ice shelves, proved indispensable in exploring the profound impact of climate change on Antarctica's ecosystems.

    Fast forward to 2024, and the journey continues. Building upon the success of the autonomous ocean gliders, Professor Heywood now heads up an international team aboard the RRS Sir David Attenborough for the PICCOLO expedition. Processes Influencing Carbon Cycling: Observations of the Lower limb of the Antarctic Overturning (PICCOLO) marks a groundbreaking venture, exploring the intricate processes shaping carbon dioxide movement in the depths of the Southern Ocean.

    In January, the 52-day research cruise set sail for the Weddell Sea from Punta Arenas, the southernmost tip of South America. The interdisciplinary team is made up of 32 international scientists from over 20 institutions worldwide, including experts from the British Antarctic Survey and Plymouth Marine Laboratory. En route, the team will deploy groups of geologists and paleoclimate scientists to Seymour Island and James Ross Island to establish camps for comprehensive fieldwork.

    The expedition will see scientists explore previously unstudied areas, including under sea ice. UEA's four ocean gliders play a crucial role, providing real-time data on water temperature, salinity, currents, and carbon levels. Alongside the gliders, scientists will use state-of-the-art technologies like autonomous floats, instrumented marine mammals, and satellite Earth observation to examine the intricate biological, chemical, and physical processes that transport carbon. 

    The research team will also extract samples by drilling holes in the sea ice and attaching non-invasive tags to seals. These instruments gather continuous ocean data during their dives, with real-time information transmitted to scientists through satellite communication. The insights and data gathered in this project will be integrated into earth system models, enhancing the precision of climate predictions. Findings will potentially address critical gaps in understanding Southern Ocean carbon uptake and will inform decisions on international climate change policy, as well as facilitate the development of more accurate climate predictions.

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