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The Southern Ocean observatory, a package of sensors which includes equipment to measure temperature, oxygen concentration and chlorophyll levels on the water, is deployed at the Juan Carlos I Antarctic scientific station, in Antarctica.Didac Casado Rodriguez/The Canadian Press

Atop the sea floor off the Antarctic Ocean’s Livingston Island, a new Canadian ocean observatory is collecting data and transmitting the information back to Canadian and international climate scientists.

The platform sits 23 metres below the surface of the coastal waters and is hooked up to an on-shore buoy by an underwater cable. It is expected to provide clues about important polar processes such as sea ice and glacial formation and retreat, and how they are being impacted by climate change in the region.

“The Southern Ocean [Antarctic Ocean] is one of the most under-observed places in our globe,” said Kohen Bauer, a senior staff scientist with Oceans Network Canada (ONC). By establishing a “long-term series of ocean observations, we can start to figure out how this environment operates.”

The data from the underwater platform will be transmitted by satellite from the buoy to scientists at ONC, an ocean-observatory initiative based out of the University of Victoria. This data is then processed and archived by ONC scientists before being made publicly available on the internet.

“We know that the Southern Ocean plays an extremely important role in the global climate system. Our data can add or input one piece of that very large picture,” said Dr. Bauer.

The observatory was installed in the shallow coastal waters of the small island off the coast of the Antarctica peninsula earlier this week through a partnership between Oceans Network Canada and the Spanish National Research Council (CSIC).

The sea-floor observatory is a three-metre-tall platform that plays host to a variety of instruments measuring oceanographic data, such as water temperature, salinity, pressure, oxygen, chlorophyll and turbidity levels.

ONC owns and operates more than ten thousand sensors along Canada’s three coasts and in the country’s Arctic region. They’ve been operating infrastructure in Canada’s Arctic since 2012, and have developed observatory technology that can operate even in ice-covered water and freezing polar conditions.

However, because Canada doesn’t currently own and operate a research station in the Antarctic, ONC has not expanded their observatories into the Antarctic waters – until now.

“I think one of the reasons this partnership is so successful is because we’ve demonstrated our experience in installing coastal observatories in the Canadian Arctic in similar kinds of really harsh environments,” said Kate Moran, the chief executive officer of ONC.

Dr. Moran added that this new observatory system is especially important because the Southern Ocean, which surrounds Antarctica, is very poorly understood.

Dr. Moran also said another important element is that as ONC’s subsea observatory gathers data year round, it will expand and increase access to data in the Antarctic region, which was previously only collected seasonally by CSIC’s Juan Carlos I Antarctic scientific station.

This collaboration between Canadian and Spanish scientists demonstrates the importance of strong international collaboration on polar climate research, said David Hik. He is the executive director of programs and chief scientist at Polar Knowledge Canada, the federal government agency that conducts and co-ordinates Canada’s polar research.

“There’s a lot of collaborative value in working with partners in other countries and sharing our expertise,” said Dr. Hik. “Contributing to that global pool of knowledge and research helps us understand what’s happening to our shared planet. And polar regions have a lot to do with that.”

“This partnership with Spain is just the most current example of how we’re able to effectively partner with another country and contribute to local efforts to understand what’s happening in the Antarctic and Southern Ocean environments,” he said.

Research in the polar regions cannot be effective if undertaken by only a handful of countries, he added.

“National boundaries are pretty artificial. Just because we’ve drawn a line on the map doesn’t mean ecosystems respect those same boundaries,” said Dr. Hik. He added that the more our efforts are aligned, the better the data will be as countries try to understand the current state of the environment.

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