Scientific breakthrough to the Southern Hemisphere

Scientific breakthrough to the Southern Hemisphere

Alexander Lisitsyn
RAS academician, Shirshov Institute of Oceanologyof the Russian Academy of Sciences

In was in spring 1955 that I first heard about preparations of an expedition to the Antarctic from Ivan Papanin, then deputy director of the Institute of Oceanology of the USSR Academy of Science. They wanted to set up in that place an observatory for 24/7 observations and conduct first researches in the Southern Ocean, notorious for its heavy storms

Anyway, researchers were attracted by the place scientifically for the place was a continent, totally uninhabited either by people or other living creatures with all water it had was in the solid state. Geological researches suggest that similar or almost similar conditions rained in whole Europe up to the Urals and North America in the past. Vast plots of land were covered by slabs of ice 2-3km thick. Proving this are huge boulders in fields and valleys, accumulations of stones and sand – glacial clay, ubiquitous lakes, terrain, etc.

The Antarctic icecap was even larger than Europe. It is difficult to imagine all these cities and lands covered by ice. Ice does creep there, moving from the cap center sideways to turn into icebergs.

The Northern Hemisphere also has continental ice regions. Their center is Greenland. However, the surface of the Arctic Ocean has always been dominated not by a continent but ocean with drifting ice and icebergs. These are two icing models, continental and ocean.

The main area of continental glacier now as in the not so distant geological past is in the Southern Hemisphere with the ice spread pattern changing over time similarly to that in the Norther Hemisphere. Its fringes projected into the ocean at one moment and withdrew from it at another. Here one witnesses the operation of a natural ice thermometer in progress.

It has grown more obvious for researchers and scientists that accurate forecasts of the environment and clime development in the past is contingent on these huge natural ice self-sustained fridges.

All of a sudden, these efforts became needed in space exploration. A resolution of the International Geophysical Committee covered not only continental efforts, but launches of geophysical rockets from the Antarctic and Hayes Island in the Arctic.

Tireless Papanin

Conveniently, in those years authorities still remembered about the heroic endeavor of the station Severny Polus – 1 (Russian for northern pole), drifting in the Arctic ice, landing the job of planning a charge to the Antarctic and Southern Ocean on the laps of Papanin among other co-authors of the initiative. First thing first, to get to the region they had to start coming to the Southern Hemisphere, which was poorly researched and almost unattended by Soviet expeditions. Besides, it had been only a decade since the end of the Great Patriotic War, meaning that the country just started its long recovery, adopting a very frugal lifestyle.

Nevertheless, almost a miracle happened, a tribute not to officials, but rather scientists with the Academy of Sciences and polar explorers, who were held in high esteem at the time.

It is noteworthy that the job of organizing such an audacious and large expedition to the Antarctic, unknown to humanity before, was given to the USSR Academy of Sciences with its Vice-President Academician Ivan Bardin picked to head the project. Other institutions of Morflot, a sea and river transport watchdog, Hydrometeorological service and Glavsevmorput, governing operations in the main northern route were brought in for technical assistance. This was one of the most complex endeavors ever undertaken by the Academy of Sciences.

It was dubbed KAE AN SSSR, a.k.a. Comprehensive Antarctic Expedition of the USSR Academy of Science.

In the government, the project was supervised by Anastas Mikoyan, assisted by Adm. Valisy Burkhanov, heading the Main Directorate of the Main Northern Route (Glavsevmorput). Professor Michael Somov was named the head of the project on the continent for the first year, while Professor Vladimir Kort, leading the Institute of Oceanology, commanded the operation in the ocean.

The continental team was supposed to stay through winter to continue observation and processing of materials collected during the first summer. The first task facing the expedition was to build a settlement on the icecap and start conducting first researches of the continent before the polar night took over.

Trains and plains

Of all modern transport systems available at the time, the major role in the polar latitudes belonged to aviation and heat-insulated cat trains, heavy tracked tractors pulling sledges. It was the latter that contributed most of all to the exploration of the icecap, taking the teams over thousands of kilometers.

Coming in the way of aviation operations were poor radio and meteorological support, weather and lack of airfields. Though, cat trains were dangerous due to deep cracks in the icecap. Tractor routes charted for seismic researches made the most significant impact. They conducted a series of blasts, generating pulses of seismic waves, to measure the ice thickness.

The first data, collected on the continent, suggested that the icecap was not just a slab of ice, but rather an ice system of enormous dimensions. It was in constant motion over a stone surface, replete with cracks.

Being 1-3km thick, the icecap generates extreme pressure over its bedrock with the interfacing layer capturing small and large rock particles as it moves. It is in a way a natural rock crusher or a giant grinder of global dimensions turning the rock into small powder mixed with rock particles. In some places large pieces come off finer material, exactly what researches observed in the Banger Oasis, 300km away from Mirny, reached by sea geologists aboard of helicopters.

Sedimentary materials are generated deep below the ice and moved by sub-ice “rock” coral rivers, taking ice to the ocean shore. Based on the surface line of the bedrock, researches identified ice divides and subglacial valleys, as well as estuaries of solid ice rivers.

Generated under the icecap are isolated ice reservoirs. Pieces and fragments in them are consistent with composition of the bedrock sealed under thick ice. These ice rivers emerge as huge iceberg estuaries and steep cliff running the length of the bank. The process results in icebergs, huge natural floats with a rock weight below. They travel hundreds and thousands of kilometers away from the icecap. Ever since they come off the huge slab of ice they are tracked by satellites.

The Antarctic rock crusher and grinder are a global machine, covering 12-14 thousand km2 and manifesting itself in the form of perpetual noise in seismic recordings. These were results of the first four expeditions.

Conqueror of ice

Needed was a research vessel, fit for operations in heavy and super-complex ice conditions of the Roaring Forties and Furious Fifties with waves towering up to two dozen meters. She had to be at least twice as big as Vityaz and able to resist to waves for hours at a time, while the job was done on her deck, and respond to steering equally good in various propulsion modes. This narrowed the range of options to a diesel-electric powered platform. Besides, an ice-capable ship was favored more than an icebreaker, unsuitable for operations in rough seas. Another important requirement was to equip the future ship with navigation gear, providing her coordinates even in uncharted sea areas.

To support wintering periods in the Arctic, the USSR ordered in the Netherlands two cargo-and-passenger diesel-electric ships Ob’ and Lena, displacing 12,000t each. It was decided to turn one of them into a unique ice-capable research vessel. The conversion was carried out as planned in a timely manner, thanks to the impetus provided by ministers and Papanin’s team.

By the set deadline, Ob’ had started taking loads – about 4-5 thousand tons of aircraft, tractors, helicopters, all-terrain vehicles, portable houses, power plants, etc. The inaugural run of the vessel in the Davis Sea in fast ice conditions, aggravated by strong winds, proved that such operations were plausible.

Lab in the ocean

During the conversion, the ship received at least six Ocean winches and four modern research labs. Though, the most challenging task proved to be the deployment of heavy twin-drum winch for trawling at depths of up to 8-10 thousand meters and handling heavy large-diameter seabed corers, weighing up to 5t. At the request of crews, the winches were deployed on both sides of the ship and stern, providing for operations in close ice conditions when the screw of the ship was running.

With the benefit of hindsight, one can say with a high degree of certainty that the sea part of the expedition would not be possible had it not be for the well-engineered and executed conversion.

When taking seabed samples, the power plants had to be running at low speed at all times to keep the ice away, even though the ship left ice opening astern. This approach of heading to the wind was called Captain Ivan Mann’s Method. Every time after the station was up and stowed, he called the lab to ask, “What have you caught?”

The vessel proved her ice capabilities during the first transit through fast and drifting ice in the vicinity of Mirny and kept surprising everybody throughout the first voyage to eastern Antarctic regions. During her second run to the area, Ob’ rescued the Japanese icebreaker Sōya from ice captivity responding to an emergency signal. The huge and hard hull coupled with good ice capabilities proved to be the right mix for unusual conditions in the Antarctic.

Sediments expected

The job to develop approaches and techniques of operations “in hazardous conditions” landed not only on the plate of geologists, who handled equipment and gear weighing up to 100kg, but Captain Mann’s as well.

His was to figure out how to stabilize the vessel against the wind with due consideration of her drift and maintain the rope vertically over the board, which implied that the ship had to be kept at a very low speed, something possible to do only on a diesel-electric ship. Everything seemed pretty much straightforward, but the gusting wind and waves kept the vessel listed. The bridge and winch operators had to demonstrate outstanding cohesion, which took a while to develop. In rough seas waves not only covered the deck, it was not unheard of when they brushed the bridge as well. To assist winch operations, a jackstay was stretched across the deck for crew members to hold to it.

Another hazard was that in bad weather, any device lifted from water turned into a heavy and dangerous pendulum.

Collected samples had to be fast processed in the ship’s primary treatment lab complete with a self-sustained power plant feeding metering gear, communication line connecting with the deck, as well as other things essential to support its operation in heavy meteorological conditions, polar night and snow. In the lab, scientists created a unique plant of suspended matter, part of which was used to study and precipitate dissolved substances. A third plant was used for aerosol analysis (atmospheric suspended material). There was also a fourth section to process and research moraine subglacial formations of the Antarctic icecap. All these facilities, capable of around-the-clock operations, were set up by the crew and builders during the transit.

Advanced capabilities of the research vessel Ob’ proved to be instrumental in taking just started studies further during the ship’s first voyage already. Furthermore, scientists could do them in areas, not long before unthinkable in moderate and tropical zones, let alone the Roaring latitudes.

The sea part of the expedition would not be possible had it not be for the well-engineered and executed conversion of the ship

Processes were studied not only in seabed samples, but in the body of water as well, continuing efforts kicked off during the first voyages of Vityaz. Results caused a sensation in science. Matters dissolved in water, as well as atmosphere, snow, ice and icebergs precipitate to the seabed, creating the top layer of the bottom. These micro-particles literally “record” the precipitation process history. Thus, by studying the matters, both precipitated and suspended in the water, one can draw conclusions about a gamut of various natural processes. The challenge in the whole thing is that such matters are in abundance by no means, requiring special nuclear filters, capturing particles less than 0.45µ. Then they are exposed to microscopic studies and various analyses. Back in those days, equipment was 10 times less sensitive, accounting for the need to process volumes of bottom water. Researches developed 200l and 400l water sampling devices, featuring special sedimentation traps. For top layers researches deployed multi-stage immersible stainless steel pumps.

To capture suspended matter deployed were industrial separators, similar to those adopted in medical plants producing antibiotics. These were extremely heavy machines almost as tall as a human being, made from stainless steel and provided by Swiss Alfa Laval under a special contract.

Ob’ was the first in the whole world to carry a separation lab featuring other types of machines as well, namely a drum separator and disc stack centrifuge providing stages 1 and 2 respectively. High-speed separators are particularly dangerous in rough seas, since the drum performing thousands of revolutions per minute can come off its mounting any moment.

Special analyses of rock samples suggested that the bedrock petrographic composition was extremely diverse, however in southern zones of the ocean researches came up with a whole new belt of marine ice sediments, which had been unknown before. In the North, the belt butt-ends against the global diatom siliceous belt, 30-70 percent comprised of diatom flaps. The maximum content of amorphous silica is 70-plus percent. The southern silica belt traces were discovered in bottom sediments and suspended matters.

Other discoveries are attributed to studies of bottom sediment columns, penetrating deep into the geological history. Stretching around 15m tops, these columns revealed the variation of borders of major types of sediments in the past and were instrumental in developing a working stratigraphic scale of the Southern hemisphere. This is the history of ice ages replaced by periods of warming as opposed to the conditions of the Northern Hemisphere.

Standing particularly prominent among other devices was a giant coring tube, a.k.a. the Tzar Tube. It retrieved samples not only from the bottom surface, but far lower layers, dating back hundreds of thousands of years, as well.

This design took the capacity of the winch, developed and mounted on Ob’ in the run-up to the research voyage, to its limit. The whole thing weighs 5-plus tons with the bore core spanning 130mm in diameter.

Please meet the shelf!

Preparations of the vessel for bottom contour researches was conducted by geomorphologists, led by Professor Alexander Zhivago. They managed to obtain and deploy in the ship lab two advanced Soviet acoustic depth finders, deep and shallow water. They run at all times when the vessel moved. They supplied data, comprised an atlas of the bottom of the Southern Ocean. Multiple maps were published and made a basis for the navigational maps of the Navy.

In the first four voyages, which included a team of the Institute of Oceanology, resulted in numerous discoveries. For one thing, the shelf surprised everybody, particularly the zone lying 200m below the surface. In the Antarctic, the shelf bearing the load of the icecap submerged to 100-200m with its fringe running parallel to the icecap edge. The place was called the Lazarev Valley. They also managed to draw a bathymetric map of the Davis Sea, washing the shore of the Mirny observatory. Other discoveries included the Lena and Ob Seamounts, crossing of the mid-ocean ridge of the Southern Ocean, which just became a subject of recent studies and later paved the way for the age of lithosphere plate tectonic explorations. Most of these data, ending up in the hands of hydrographers, was included in the first Soviet maps of the Southern Ocean.

The sea expedition in the Antarctic was full of results, contributing to all Earth sciences. The credit for the most significant impact goes to the first four voyages, when sea studies were the focal point.

The year 1960 saw a shift of attention from the sea to the continent. Most of our special gear was removed from the ship, turning sea operations from advanced researches in the spirit of the Academy of Science into routine and outdated. However, the first four voyages bore scores of significant results.

Though, researches of the Southern Hemisphere in terms of lithosphere plate tectonics kicked off in the late ‘50s, there are still many loose ends. One of them is the vertical motion of the continental Antarctic plate prompted by the icecap load. As we already know, imposed by the largest slab of ice on Earth, this load changes in space and time. During the sea exploration program, it was determined that the load is a key factor in shaping the bottom contour.

It was the first comprehensive expedition, encompassing both the continent and ocean of the Southern Hemisphere.


During the exploration of seas and oceans of various climatic zones, researchers came up with a 4D system of oceanological studies. Besides the three standard coordinates, i.e. latitude, longitude and depth, they phased in a fourth indicator, time. This allowed to study the simultaneous aspect in the events in the ocean and on the continent not only in terms of variation of the quantity of matter in the suspended material and bottom sediments, but its types and their dependence on the distance to the icecap as well. This comparative analysis was the first-ever, albeit incomplete, conducted in the region.

The continental researches suggested that the icecap was around four meters thick. About 2/3s of them, the ice part of the cap, are the modern zone of the most severe environment and climate conditions on the planet. The degree of cold is perilously close to that on some planets of the solar system, 89.2°.

A comparative analysis of the glaciers in the Southern Hemisphere, developed on the continental crust, with the Northern Hemisphere, a second maximum severity zone but grown on the ocean crust, suggests that it is the crust type that ultimately determines the climate severity. The severity of the maritime part is somewhat offset by the liquid sea. The Arctic Ocean, possessing milder conditions, is covered by drifting ice, providing a special circulation. In other words, the place lacks the kind of hard cap of the Southern Ocean.

Geologists claim that Earth went through repeating cycles of crust changes in the zones of extreme severity. There is a way to forecast their future movement by measuring the motion vector of the lithospheric plates, their continental parts in particular.

Thus, we have areas on our planet, possessing water in various states, changing over time due to the motion of the lithospheric plates. Liquid water is replaced by zones of “solid” water and vapor. The interaction of the three states of water and their sediments proves the global ocean level and icecap volume to be a viable tool in researches.

This allows to figure out the dynamics of water distribution through the three states over time and not only track changes in the continental and sea environments, but also apply this data to the evaporation zone in the tropics to determine its impact on the overall balance in the zone. This zone stands out for its enormous scope and magnitude in the history of geology. The fact makes water a “compensator” and indicator of its three volumes.

There are sufficient grounds to claim that upon getting to the Arctic Ocean, the continental part of the lithospheric plate will turn Europe and Asia into colder places. Moreover, if the continental plate maintains its position, Earth will witness a global record of negative temperatures falling to -100° and below!

The aforementioned indicates that a crucial role in the history of environment and climate development belongs to lithospheric plate tectonics. Efforts aimed at studying this aspect by means of manned underwater vehicles have been underway at the Institute of Oceanology for the past 30 years. The results suggest that through mid-ocean ridges a considerable amount of endogenic matter of the hot magma, heated up to 1,200°С, comes into contact with water. Another observation was that every 1,000m added 100 atmospheres to the water pressure. At the same time, this changes water properties, turning it into a fluid aggressive to the basaltic lava, dissolving basalts as if they were sugar, dropped into a cup of tea. The process starts shaping ore minerals and hydrothermal vents.

Researches in the Antarctic paves the way for new studies in physics, chemistry, biology, and ocean geology

By any means a remarkable discovery of the period was that copper, zinс and other heavy metals on the continent had derived from pyritic ore, aged up to 500 mln. years. Given the minerals, chemical composition and biogenic residues in the pyritic ore of the South Urals and other regions, the crust obviously originated in the ocean. This is one of new indicators of conditions shaping the sea crust of the lithospheric plates.

When turning into ice, sea water undergoes a cold distillation process with most of salts and suspended matter “squeezed” and just a fraction of them preserved in micro bubbles.

Not least important is the third state of water, namely vapor, i.e. fog and clouds. The process also affects the arid zones, distilling sea water and “squeezing” dissolved salts out of it. This results in distillate, i.e. fog, clouds, and rain drops, accompanied by their subsequent movement to a new location where they will fall. Salts, remaining in their original location, have been extracted at shallow water sites and in mines since ancient times. The fact automatically rates them as ancient deposits.

Direct probes into processes on the Antarctic continent and Southern Ocean, encircling Earth’s major continental ice accumulation area pave the way for new studies in physics, chemistry, biology, and ocean geology.

It would not be an exaggeration at all to say that the materials, collected in the Antarctic by all-weather and ice-capable vessels, pointed to synchronous changes of water states.

The motive power of the “stone crushers” comes from ice elevated above the level of the world ocean. Today the Antarctic is in average 2,165m above the level. Europe and Asia are elevated 300m and 950m respectively. The last glacierization resulted in the ocean level dropping by another 100-120m. The power of the natural “stone crusher” is also registered by the level of the world ocean, telling us among other things the location of the pole of severe conditions, which we explored during the expedition. The glacierization will peak when the continental crust comes over both poles simultaneously.

This makes the Antarctic icecap an indicator of a paleoclimate, with the history of its processes being one of the primary tasks of the lithospheric plate theory. 

Peace ambassadors

During the sea part of the exploration program the crew made port calls to New Zealand’s Wellington, Australia’s Adelaide, as well as Cape Town and Hamburg. There the crew not only set up tours of the ship, but also met leading scientists of universities, geological services and sailors.

Particularly important was a meeting with Douglas Mawson of the University of Adelaide, a.k.a. Nansen of the Southern Hemisphere. Mawson made the study of Australia’s Antarctic his life-long endeavor. Having visited Ob’, the scientists invited his Soviet to the university and presented them with impressions collected in the course of his researches. Quite an impact was made by Australia’s Minister of Lands, who were present at the meetings.

A week spent in Hamburg proved to be equally fruitful in terms of starting international contacts.

Our scientists made several presentations and consultations covering a variety of issues to include the construction of the first German icebreaker Polarstern, which was supposed to become a counterpart of Ob’ as far as her performance went. The experience of the Soviet vessel proved to be extremely valuable in her construction and outfitting. Exchanges of articles, books and maps followed the briefings. Russian scientists later took part in several expeditions to both poles aboard the German icebreaker.

Scientific ties ensued in the continental Arctic as well. Many foreign researches stayed in Mirny over winters, while Soviet scientists were often put up aboard of stations of other nations. Not least important was assistance extended to each other when aircraft and helicopters were caught in distress.

Finally, discussions of joint efforts in the Antarctic led to a triumphant agreement signed by 12 countries on December 2, 1959, effectively a waiver of their rights for the territory of the pole, proclaiming the sixth continent free for researches and off limits for deployment of military units or industrial facilities.

This turned the Antrarctic into the world’s largest reserve, celebrating its 60th anniversary this year. The duration of the agreement is unlimited. It paved the way for our science to the Southern Hemisphere up to the Southern Pole and parts of the Southern Ocean adjacent to it. This is yet another evidence of the effectiveness of interaction of researches and their initiative in solving major global issues.