Scientists Recruit Elephant Seals to Assist in Antarctic Study

Scientists Recruit Elephant Seals to Assist in Antarctic Study

Sometimes you can’t find what you’re looking for right away, or the answers aren’t readily known. 

Sometimes the data you need is at the bottom of the Southern Ocean and you need a little help getting it. 

Climate scientists struggling to understand deep arctic currents were stumped on how to collect the data they needed.

They did the smart thing and decided to enlist some professionals: really seasoned deep-sea arctic divers. Locals who know the area in and out. We’re talking, of course, about elephant seals.

Using a non-invasive tracking device attached to the seals back, scientists were able to collect data from parts of the ocean we have never observed. 

One female seal traveled over 3,000 miles, making over 6,000 dives to depths over a half-mile deep. 

Fun fact: seals actually dive in their sleep.

In a recently published paper, Dr. Swart and Dr. Biddle outlined the findings of the seal’s expeditions. 

In short, the seals found that water in the Southern Ocean moves a lot more under the ice than the scientists had anticipated.

Here’s why that matters: 

The global Ocean, as a whole, stores more than 90% of Earth’s excess heat. 

The Southern Ocean is the portal where much of this heat transfers to and from the atmosphere. 

In the Ocean, there are large currents (like the gulf stream) and small currents. 

Small currents, called submesoscale flows, have a direct effect on what Dr. Swart calls the “window between the atmosphere and the whole ocean.”

“If these submesoscales are to change in the future, they actually will really change how much heat and carbon is stored in the atmosphere or in the ocean,” Dr. Swart says. “And so they’re really, really important, cumulatively, to the habitable planet.”

We still know very little about the Ocean and how it works to keep our climate stable. But, studies like these are important first steps towards a better understanding of our planet.