Sensors developed by the University of St Andrews have been employed by Antarctic researchers to collect otherwise inaccessible information about the climate. The small data logging transmitters have been attached to the heads of elephant seals.

Scientists usually collect data to characterise the ocean using satellite sensing, buoyant floats, and ship expeditions, but winter sea ice renders the Southern Ocean virtually impermeable to all three.

Professor Mike Fedak from the University’s Gatty Marine Laboratory said, “The Southern Ocean is a hotspot for climate research because its circulation is critical to understanding the earths climate and its huge ice sheet is sensitive to climate change.

“Southern elephant seals are wide-ranging predators that roam all over the Southern Ocean, even under the sea ice in the wintertime – a time when conventional ocean observation methods are unable to gather data.”

The instruments measure temperature, pressure, and salinity and transmit data as well as seal positions to satellites when the seals surface. From this, researchers are able to amass data for a vast range of hitherto inaccessible ocean, including areas deep within the sea-ice in winter while also learning about the animals themselves.

This new data has enabled them to follow the yearly rise-and-fall cycle of sea ice production, and should help scientists refine computer models of the Southern Ocean circulation.

Led by Dr Jean-Benoit Charrassin, a marine biologist at the Natural History Museum in Paris, researchers in France, the UK, Australia and the US have attached electronic dataloggers to 70 seals at the four most important breeding colonies of southern elephant seals.

The species can dive as deep as 2 km in search of food while ranging across much of the southern ocean. Thanks to this innovative technology, the only remaining area with limited coverage is the Pacific sector, which contains no islands for the seals to breed on.

Professor Fedak explained, “I think this is an extremely exciting new approach for ocean observation which has now been extended to seals roaming the seas around both Poles as part of the International Polar Year (IPY).”

The on-going MEOP project (Marine Mammals Exploring the Oceans Pole to Pole) has equipped 100 seals of 3 polar species with oceanographic sensors and these animals are now routinely sending large quantities of near real-time information from the undersampled polar regions.

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