Finding Endurance’s shipwreck helps create an ‘Antarctica google map’

the HMS Endurance embarked with explorer Ernest Shackleton and his crew in 1914 for the first-ever land crossing of Antarctica, but the ship had to be abandoned in the Weddell Sea.

Its whereabouts remained a mystery for over a century until a team of scientists discovered it endurance, surprisingly well preserved, on the seabed. Nico Vincent and Dr. Lasse Rabenstein spoke to us aboard the ship that spotted them.

Why is this discovery scientifically important?

dr Let Rabenstein: To be honest, that’s the question I asked when I first heard about this expedition. Who is interested? We already knew a lot about the ship from the history books. But getting scientific instruments into the Weddell Sea is a rare opportunity. There aren’t many icebreaker ships in the southern hemisphere that can make it into the ice of the Weddell Sea. Shackleton’s expedition was not stopped in the Weddell Sea by accident. It has really heavy ice conditions. Therefore, every opportunity to obtain in situ data samples from the Weddell Sea should be seized.

Finding the wreck yourself was motivating and people were really creative in their thinking. We have combined all the different fields of science, research, navigation, underwater technology and archeology to all work together to achieve this goal. Without them, we would not have developed new technologies for observing and navigating the ice – the expedition was the first to use Saab Sabertooth submersibles.

How did the Sabertooth vehicles help you in your search? endurance?

Manufactured by Saab, Sabertooth submersibles can reach depths well beyond where humans could dive © Falklands Maritime Heritage Trust and Nick Birtwistle

Nico Vincent: We found and built several solutions to find the ship. No divers could be deployed as the wreck is too deep for humans. The deepest depth reached by a diver is 700 m, but the wreck is 3000 m deep. Only robots can dive to that depth.

Accessing this depth in open water is extremely complicated and requires cutting-edge technology and a strong experienced team. However, to make it under drift ice [like in the Weddell Sea] harder than the moon landing in 1969.

The main advantage of Sabertooth is that it is a hybrid vehicle, both an autonomous underwater vehicle and a remotely operated vehicle. This means we can switch Sabertooth from a dedicated task schedule in fully automatic mode to a real-time manual remote control drone. Real-time control over the vehicle allows us to collect real-time data and also make quick decisions. As soon endurance was discovered, we stopped the original task plan and went straight to our target to officially identify it.

You mentioned other scientific opportunities offered by the expedition. What did you learn?

LR: Scientists study the sea ice in the Arctic and Antarctic because this ice is very important for the global climate. Sea ice acts as a gigantic mirror for the sun’s rays, reflecting the sun’s energy back into the atmosphere and into space. This has a cooling effect on the global climate.

If the ice disappears due to warming or some other effect of climate change, then there’s an open ocean that absorbs much of that solar energy, heating the planet even more. This is also known as the ice albedo feedback mechanism.

The Endurance22 project gave 15 scientists a rare opportunity to study the Weddell Sea aboard the expedition ship SA Agulhas II © Falklands Maritime Heritage Trust and Nick Birtwistle

Therefore, it is very important to understand how sea ice changes and responds to global warming. Humans typically study this ice from space, using satellite missions and imagery to take measurements of ice thickness, sea surface temperatures, and ice temperatures.

[Scientists] have super-complex numerical models running that can simulate sea-ice processes and the effects on global climate. But that’s only trustworthy if you can get to the Weddell Sea and other ice-covered regions of the world and actually verify that what your models or your measurements from space are telling you is true. This means that we have to collect so-called in situ data.

What’s next for the expedition?

LR: Of the 15 scientists on board, we didn’t have a biologist. When we saw the pictures of the wreck and the marine life there we decided it is very important to involve deep sea marine biologists and see what kind of life forms can be observed on the wreck. Underwater geologists and deep-sea sedimentologists will also be interested in learning more about the Weddell Sea.

Navigating ice is a very challenging thing, but there is a lot of potential to improve it with technology, and this expedition really was the beginning of a new future for shipping.

I run Drift + Noise, a spin-off from the German Polar Research Institute, and we’re trying to set up what you might call the Google Maps of the Polar Regions. We established the software and it was first used on the Endurance22 expedition.

The crash barrier and the wheel of endurance © Falklands Maritime Heritage Trust and National Geographic

Using satellite earth observation images, the captain was able to navigate through the ice on the bridge even in the dark hours, even when it was snowing. We could use it like a road map through the ice. Ice is constantly changing, drifting 20 kilometers or more in a day. Leads open – these are the “roads” or paths between ice for the ship – or they can close.

This is the future of ships, shipping 4.0 I would say. Like a smart ship connected to the internet and exchanging data with the outside world. All the satellite images that served as the ship’s road map, as well as the data from sensors on the ship, will be transferred into a data cloud for the development of a kind of Google Maps for the Arctic and Antarctic.

What will happen endurance now?

NV: The wreck is protected by the Antarctic Treaty as historical heritage. She has not been sampled and remains untouched.

We created a LIDAR survey, captured 4K imagery, and performed photomosaic and geophysical surveys to enable archaeologists to provide measurement data and accurate studies for scientific publications. It is planned to construct a 3D model of the wreck for both temporary exhibitions and the permanent museum display. Your data will be recorded with an accuracy comparable to that of an archaeological survey on land.

The crash barrier and the wheel of endurance © Falklands Maritime Heritage Trust and National Geographic

What else can we gain from the history of HMS Endurance?

LR: The story is really inspiring. Shackleton had guts, and though that HMS Endurance failed, Shackleton succeeded in a way because he became a polar hero. He never escalated the risk to the point where it became deadly. In everything he had done, he never lost a single man’s life. I think for many Shackleton is a positive inspiration.

Our work gets real media attention, which is good. There’s this phrase; you can only protect what you know. As people begin to read and become interested in this story, they may read more about the nature, geology, and climate of the Arctic and Antarctic regions. These regions, particularly the Arctic, are changing fastest due to global warming. but [with more] awareness, we have better chances of protecting them and our climate in the long term.

About our experts Nico Vincent and Dr. Lasse Rabenstein

Nico Vincent is the Expedition Sub-Sea Manager aboard the Endurance22 exploration.

dr Lasse Rabenstein is the lead scientist on the expedition team that found HMS Endurance.

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