Floating lab ‘Polar Pod’ to drift around Antarctica

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An ambitious vertical ‘floating laboratory’, built with help from the French government, will use sensors to collect data from the waters of the Southern Ocean.

Polar Pod, the creation of French explorer and environmentalist Jean-Louis Etienne, will be transported horizontally from South Africa to the Antarctic, but will rotate in a vertical position to start its operations.

Ballast tanks — onboard compartments that fill with water — ensure the spindly structure remains stable and won’t pop out of the ocean or fall sideways, even in bad weather.

The manned vessel is designed without an engine — it will instead be carried by the Antarctic Circumpolar Current — a 13,000-mile loop of ocean water that flows around Antarctica.

The ambitious structure will be 100 feet tall — longer than New York’s Statue of Liberty (that’s 151 feet from base to torch).

Polar Pod will complete a circuit around Antarctica twice in three years, using sensors to collect data on ocean carbon absorption levels and acidity, as well as wave dynamics.

Construction of the Polar Pod, which is being funded by the French government, has not yet started, but Etienne hopes it will leave at the end of 2023 or 2024.

Etienne, aged 74, was the first man to reach the North Pole alone in 1986.

Artist's concept of the floating ship.  The compartment protruding from the water, pictured, can accommodate eight people at a time

Artist’s concept of the floating ship. The compartment protruding from the water, pictured, can accommodate eight people at a time

The ambitious structure will be 100 meters tall - taller than New York's Statue of Liberty (both are pictured, but not to scale)

The ambitious structure will be 100 meters tall – taller than New York’s Statue of Liberty (both are pictured, but not to scale)

WHAT IS THE ANTARCTIC CIRCUMPOLAR CURRENT?

The Antarctic Circumpolar Current is a 13,000-mile loop of ocean water that flows around Antarctica.

It is powered by the confluence of smaller currents from the Pacific, Atlantic and Indian Oceans, all of which converge around Antarctica.

It is the main current in the Southern Ocean and displaces more water than any other current on Earth.

It is the only ocean current that flows all over the world.

It is responsible for absorbing and channeling warmer water away from Antarctica, keeping it frozen.

As a satellite around Antarctica, Polar Pod will enable the acquisition of data and long-term observations that will be sent to researchers, oceanographers, climatologists [and] biologists,” Etienne says on his website.

‘This platform, which is 100 meters high and weighs 1,000 tons, is sized to handle the largest waves in the world.’

Despite its top-heavy look, the Polar Pod is actually “much more stable and comfortable than a traditional vessel,” he states.

Etienne won’t reveal how much he expects the project will cost, but revealed that 43 scientific institutions from 12 countries are involved.

There will be a crew of eight people on board the Polar Pod at any given time — two sailors to navigate icebergs, three researchers and a cook — but the staff will rotate constantly, as will the crew aboard the International Space Station. (ISS).

The personnel will be housed in a multi-level compartment at the very top of the ship, which will be approximately 15 meters above the water’s surface.

The ballast tanks under the living compartment will be submerged, keeping the whole structure stable, Etienne said CNN. The one at the very bottom will weigh 1,000 tons.

Polar Pod will also use underwater microphones called hydrophones to pick up different sound waves emitted by different sea creatures, to give a count of how common they are in the region.

Electricity generation will be provided by wind turbines and photovoltaic cells, making it energy efficient and with ‘very limited impact on the environment’.

The main focus of the mission will be the ocean’s ability to absorb carbon dioxide (CO2) from the atmosphere, making the water more acidic and potentially killing marine life.

The manned craft is designed without an engine - it will instead be powered by the Antarctic Circumpolar Current

The manned craft is designed without an engine – it will instead be powered by the Antarctic Circumpolar Current

Polar Pod will complete two circuits around Antarctica every three years, carried by the Antarctic Circumpolar Current.  The Antarctic Circumpolar Current is powered by the confluence of smaller currents from the Pacific, Atlantic and Indian Oceans, all of which converge around Antarctica

Polar Pod will complete two circuits around Antarctica every three years, carried by the Antarctic Circumpolar Current. The Antarctic Circumpolar Current is powered by the confluence of smaller currents from the Pacific, Atlantic and Indian Oceans, all of which converge around Antarctica

Floating lab will be transported horizontally from South Africa to Antarctic waters but will be folded into a vertical position before work starts

Floating lab will be transported horizontally from South Africa to Antarctic waters but will be folded into a vertical position before work starts

Ballast tanks - onboard compartments that fill with water - ensure that the spindly structure remains stable and does not emerge from the ocean or fall sideways

Ballast tanks – onboard compartments that fill with water – ensure that the spindly structure remains stable and does not emerge from the ocean or fall sideways

The ocean absorbs about a quarter of the CO2 that humans create when we burn fossil fuels, including oil, coal and natural gas.

The ocean is a carbon sink – meaning it takes in more carbon from the atmosphere than it gives off.

“This very large area of ​​cold water around Antarctica is the planet’s largest carbon sink in the ocean,” Etienne told CNN.

“The stability of the Polar Pod allows the scientists to get this information.”

Even in bad weather, the Polar Pod is supported by its ballast tanks.  However, four sailors on board are tasked with navigating and deploying sails to avoid icebergs

Even in bad weather, the Polar Pod is supported by its ballast tanks. However, four sailors on board are tasked with navigating and deploying sails to avoid icebergs

Concept image shows Polar Pod during its flip maneuver.  Polar Pod is actually inspired by an existing US Navy ship, the Floating Instrument Platform (FLIP)

Concept image shows Polar Pod during its flip maneuver. Polar Pod is actually inspired by an existing US Navy ship, the Floating Instrument Platform (FLIP)

FLIP, the FLoating Instrument Platform, is a 355 meter long research platform that can be used for oceanographic research

FLIP, the FLoating Instrument Platform, is a 355 meter long research platform that can be used for oceanographic research

Polar Pod is actually inspired by an existing US Navy ship, the Floating Instrument Platform (FLIP), which was launched way back in 1962.

The ship conducts research in a number of areas, including acoustics, oceanography, meteorology and marine mammal observation.

FLIP has the ability to float across the ocean like a ship, yet can turn into a vertical buoy in the pursuit of scientific research, making it one of the most unique vessels on the water.

The world’s oceans absorb 900 million tons of CO2 a year MORE than previously thought – the amount emitted by 2.2 billion petrol cars

The world’s oceans are better at absorbing carbon dioxide than most scientific models have previously found, according to a 2020 study led by the University of Exeter.

While carbon dioxide emissions are easily quantifiable, how much is released into the atmosphere and how much is absorbed by bodies of water is difficult to calculate.

Previous estimates of the movement of carbon (known as ‘flux’) between the atmosphere and the oceans did not take into account temperature differences at the water’s surface and a few meters below.

The study calculated CO2 fluxes from 1992 to 2018, finding up to twice as much net flux at certain times and locations compared to uncorrected models.

Oceans can absorb as much as 0.9 petagrams of extra CO2, the same as 900 million metric tons, the study revealed.

A gasoline car averaging 9,000 miles per year, 40 miles per gallon and 0.4 kg of CO2 per mile will produce 408 kg of CO2 per year.

Therefore 900 million tons of CO2 correspond to the same amount of CO2 emissions as about 2.2 billion cars.

The researchers say this is equivalent to ten percent of global fossil fuel emissions.

“Half of the carbon dioxide we emit does not stay in the atmosphere, but is absorbed by the oceans and land vegetation ‘sinks’,” said Professor Andrew Watson of the Global Systems Institute at the University of Exeter.

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