The polar regions are more critically affected by climate change than any other region on Earth. On the Antarctic continent and in its surrounding oceans, the effects of climate change are likely to be dramatic, and include large-scale catastrophic ice melt, loss of habitat and biodiversity, and global sea level rise. The ‘Southern Ocean’ refers to the region where Atlantic, Indian, and Pacific Ocean waters come together to encircle Antarctica. These waters connect the different ocean basins by linking the shallow and deep limbs of the global ocean current system and play a critical role in storing and distributing heat and carbon dioxide (CO2). The Southern Ocean thus regulates the climate of the entire planet, and the capacity of the global ocean to ameliorate our changing climate is strongly controlled by the Southern Ocean.

Driven by the urgent need to improve our understanding of the Southern Ocean and its ecosystems, an international, competitive open call was announced in 2015 for research proposals to participate in an oceanographic voyage around Antarctica. This project, the Antarctic Circumnavigation Expedition (ACE), plans to follow the path of the largest oceanographic feature of the Southern Ocean, the eastward propagating, wind-driven Antarctic Circumpolar Current (ACC).

The stated goal of ACE is ‘to offer international teams of distinguished scientists an outstanding and unique opportunity to study the marine and terrestrial environment of the Subantarctic ecosystem’, in a single summer cruise that will start and end in Cape Town (20 December 2016 to 18 March 2017). Over 100 projects were submitted to the call, from which 22 were selected by an international panel of experts convened to evaluate them according to criteria of scientific excellence. The 22 selected ACE research projects involve 55 marine and terrestrial researchers from 30 countries working in Atmospheric Science, Biogeochemistry, Climatology, Glaciology, Marine and Terrestrial Ecology, Ocean Engineering, Oceanography, and Paleoclimatology.

The ACE expedition is being supported by Ferring Pharmaceuticals and is the maiden project of the newly-created Swiss Polar Institute located at the École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL). ACE will be conducted on board the Russian polar research vessel, Akademik Treshnikov, and will consist of three legs (Leg 1: Cape Town to Hobart, Leg 2: Hobart to Punta Arenas, Leg 3: Punta Arenas to Cape Town; Figure 1). During each leg, the ship will stop at numerous Subantarctic islands located in the path of the ACC, allowing for terrestrial and coastal research in addition to the open ocean investigations that will be the focus of the ship’s transects.

South Africa is the only African country to have submitted a successful application to ACE, ACE project XII: A multi-disciplinary, multi-resolution approach to understanding nutrient cycling and microbial diversity in changing Subantarctic ecosystems. The broad goal of ACE project XII is to use microbial diversity (where ‘microbial’ refers to phytoplankton, bacteria, and zooplankton) and metabolic activity in conjunction with measured chemical and physical parameters to develop an integrated model of the Subantarctic island systems in order to better understand their role in Southern Ocean productivity. Read more about it here.