Map satellite

Finding the Endurance wreckage will help create a ‘Google map of Antarctica’

The Endurance embarked in 1914 with explorer Ernest Shackleton and his crew for the first ever land crossing of Antarctica, but the ship had to be abandoned in the Weddell Sea.

Its location remained a mystery for more than a century, until a team of scientists discovered Endurance, amazingly preserved, on the seabed. Nico Vincent and Dr. Lasse Rabenstein spoke to us aboard the ship that discovered her.

Why is this discovery scientifically important?

Doctor Lasse Rabenstein: To be honest, the first time I heard about this expedition I asked this specific question. Who is interested ? We already knew a lot about the ship from the history books. But bringing scientific instruments into the Weddell Sea is a rare opportunity. There aren’t many icebreakers in the southern hemisphere that can penetrate Weddell Sea ice. Shackleton’s expedition did not, by chance, stop in the Weddell Sea. It has very heavy ice conditions. Thus, every chance of obtaining in situ data samples from the Weddell Sea should be taken.

Finding the wreckage itself was motivating and people were really creative in their thinking. We have combined all the different fields of science, research, navigation, underwater technology, archaeology, all working together to achieve this goal. Without it, we would not have developed new technologies for observing and navigating in the ice – the expedition was the first to use Sabertooth underwater vehicles, manufactured by Saab.

How Sabertooth vehicles helped you find Endurance?

Manufactured by Saab, Sabertooth underwater vehicles can reach depths far beyond where humans could dive © Falklands Maritime Heritage Trust and Nick Birtwistle © Falklands Maritime Heritage Trust and Nick Birtwistle

Nicholas Vincent: We have identified and constructed several solutions to find the ship. No divers could be deployed, as the wreckage is too deep for humans. The deepest a diver has reached is 700m, but the wreck is 3000m. Only robots can dive to this depth.

Accessing this depth in open water is extremely complicated and requires advanced technology and a strong and experienced team. However, to do so under drifting ice [like in the Weddell Sea] is more difficult than landing on the Moon in 1969.

The main advantage of Sabertooth is that it is a hybrid vehicle, both an autonomous underwater vehicle and a remote-controlled vehicle. This means that we can switch Sabertooth from following a dedicated task plan in fully automatic mode to a manual remote drone in real time. Keeping real-time control over the vehicle allows us to record real-time data and make quick decisions. As early as the Endurance had been detected, we halted the initial work plan and proceeded directly to our target for formal identification.

You mentioned other scientific opportunities presented by the expedition. What have you learned?

L/R: Scientists study sea ice in the Arctic and Antarctic because this ice is very important for the global climate. Sea ice acts as a gigantic mirror for the sun’s rays, reflecting solar energy back into the atmosphere and space. This has a cooling effect on the global climate.

If the ice disappears, due to warming or some other effect of climate change, then there’s the open ocean, which absorbs a lot of that solar energy and warms the planet even more. This is also called the ice-albedo feedback mechanism.

the expedition vessel Endurance22 SA Agulhas II.

The Endurance22 project gave 15 scientists the rare opportunity to study the Weddell Sea aboard the expedition vessel SA Agulhas II © Falklands Maritime Heritage Trust and Nick Birtwistle

It is therefore very important to understand how sea ice changes and reacts to global warming. Normally, people study this ice from space, using satellite missions and imagery to take measurements of ice thickness, sea surface temperatures, ice temperatures.

[Scientists] have super complex numerical models running that can simulate sea ice processes and the effect on global climate. But that’s only reliable if you can get to the Weddell Sea and other ice-covered regions around the world, and see if what your models or measurements from space are telling you is true. This means that we have to collect so-called in situ data.

What’s next for the expedition?

L/R: Of the 15 scientists on board, we had no biologists. When we saw the pictures of the wreck and saw the marine life there, we decided it was very important to involve marine biologists on the high seas and see what kind of life forms could be observed on the wreckage. It will also be interesting for underwater geologists and deep-sea sedimentologists to learn more about the Weddell Sea.

Navigating the ice is a very difficult thing, but there is a lot of potential to improve it with technology, and this expedition really marked the beginning of a new future for navigation.

I run Drift + Noise, a spin-off from the German Polar Research Institute, and we’re trying to put together what you might call the Google Maps of the Polar Regions. We implemented the software, and it was used for the first time during the Endurance22 expedition.

The taffrail and the wheel of the Endurance © Falklands Maritime Heritage Trust and National Geographic

Using Earth observation satellite images, the captain on deck could navigate through the ice even in the dark hours, even during snowfall. We could use it as a street map through the glass. The ice changes continuously, it drifts 20 kilometers or more in a day. The wires open – which are the “streets” or paths between the ice for the ship – or they can close.

This is the future of ships, shipping 4.0, I would say. Like an intelligent vessel interconnected to the Internet, exchanging data with the outside world. All the satellite images that served as the city map for the ship, as well as data from the ship’s sensors, are transmitted to a data cloud for the development of a kind of Google Maps for the Arctic and Antarctic.

What will happen to Endurance now?

NV: The wreck is protected as historical heritage by the Antarctic Treaty. No samples were taken from her and she remains intact.

We produced a LIDAR survey, took 4K imagery and undertook photomosaic and geophysical surveys to enable archaeologists to produce metrology and precise studies for scientific publication. It is planned to build a 3D model of the wreck, both for the temporary exhibitions and the permanent exhibition of the museum. Its data will be recorded with a level of precision comparable to that of a terrestrial archaeological survey.

The taffrail and the wheel of the Endurance © Falklands Maritime Heritage Trust and National Geographic

What can we continue to gain from the history of Endurance?

L/R: The story is truly inspiring. Shackleton had courage, and although the Endurance failed, Shackleton somehow succeeded because he became a polar hero. He never stretched the risk, so he became lethal. He never lost a single man’s life, in all that he had done. I think for many, Shackleton is a positive inspiration.

Our work attracts media attention, which is a good thing. There is this sentence; you can only protect what you know. If people start reading this story and become interested in it, then they might learn more about the nature, geology and climate of the Arctic and Antarctic regions. These regions, especially the Arctic, are the ones that are changing most rapidly due to global warming. But [with more] realize that we have a better chance of protecting them and our climate in the long term.

About our experts, Nico Vincent and Dr Lasse Rabenstein

Nico Vincent is the Underwater Expedition Manager aboard the Endurance22 Exploration.

Dr. Lasse Rabenstein is the chief scientist of the expedition team that found Endurance.

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