The Southern Ocean and Antarctica have been the focus of intense scientific study during the 20th century. No one country owns Antarctica, instead various countries maintain scientific research stations on the continent and it's islands. Leading the way for Britain has been the British Antarctic Survey based in Cambridge, which has been particularly important in studying the effects of climate change.
Aside from the scientific research done on land and ice, much work is also carried out on-board ice-breaking research ships like the James Clark Ross. These ships serve the dual role of scientific base and supply ship. There are numerous laboratories on board, together with sophisticated monitoring equipment. Obviously, the heavy seas that are often encountered mean that all equipment has to be well secured and extra robust. Cranes on the stern of the ships allow nets and equipment to be towed in the ships wake, while smaller cranes down the sides of the ship allow equipment to be lowered to set depths.
James Clark Ross is just under 100 meters long and when at sea provides a home for about 50 scientists, officers and crew. It is a supremely strong ship, bristling with navigational equipment to help it cope with the threat from rough seas and icebergs. Radar is particulalry important for spotting and avoiding ice-bergs, with even small bergs able to seriously damage the hull of the ship if hit at speed.
The driving force behind the large numbers of birds, whales and seals which live in the Southern Ocean is krill. These small crustaceans feed on smaller crustaceans called zooplankton, which in turn rely on microscopic algae, known as phytoplankton. Because of the importance of 'plankton' to the whole ecosystem of the Southern Ocean much scientific work is devoted to this subject. Nets such as the one shown are used to capture zooplankton so that their numbers, size and type can be ascertained. Numbers of krill can get so high in the South Ocean that patches of surface water sometimes appear red due to masses of krill swarming together.
In studying the smaller phytoplankton a remotely operated water sampler is often used. This allows water to be collected form a set depth and then returned to the ship for further study. The big question at the moment is how these phytoplankton will react to changes in sea temperature due to global warming. As they are at the base of the entire food web anything which significantly affects them may have far reaching consequences.