August 12, 2008

Seals Help Scientists Gather Data

Scientists have been frustrated for years when trying to study the ocean around Antarctica in winter. The bitter cold, floating sea ice, and whipping winds in the Southern Ocean make collecting data a difficult task. Scientists now have a solution: use seals.

Researchers led by Jean-Benoit Charrassin of the National Museum of Natural History in Paris recruited help from residents in the Antarctic.

Electronic data-collecting equipment was glued to 58 elephant seals in the region.  The seals sometimes dive more than a mile deep for food.

The electronic equipment then sends back data on pressure, temperature, salinity, and location whenever the seals come back to the surface.

According to the researchers report in Tuesday's edition of Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, they have been able to gather nine times the data previously gathered by ships and buoys, and now have 30 times the data they had previously found beneath the sea ice.

In total, the scientists gathered 16,500 water profiles, including 4,520 from below the sea ice.

Scientists are now using the information to map the water properties of the Southern Ocean, including the volatile areas where the water can change.  They have found that the formation of sea ice peaked in April or May, the early part of winter in the Southern Hemisphere.

The study was funded by research and government agencies in the U.S., United Kingdom, France, and Australia.


Image 2: Researchers attach environmental sensors on a elephant seal in the Antarctic. (PNAS)


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