The Araon’s Exploration of the Larsen Ice Shelf in the Antarctic

2013-05-01

Korea’s first icebreaker, the Araon, successfully explored the Larsen Ice Shelf located in the Weddell Sea in the South Pole on April 25th. The Korea Polar Research Institute reported that the Araon became the second vessel in the world, following the U.S. Palmer in 2006, to reach the Larsen region in the Antarctic winter.

Exploration of the Larsen Ice Shelf

The Larsen Ice Shelf is reputed to be the world’s coldest extreme region, with the temperatures plunging to -40 degrees Celsius in winter. An ice shelf is a platform of ice measuring between 300 to 600 meters thick which forms when a glacier or ice sheet breaks off and floats into the sea. The Larsen Ice Shelf is located along the east coast of the tailbone-shaped Antarctic Peninsula. The northernmost ice shelf was broken off during a storm in 1995 and the middle part had separated in 2002. Now only the southern segment remains. Scientists assume that the ice in the northern part of the western Antarctic is melting fast due to the particularity of the tidal currents and atmospheric circulation in the region. In 2002 a piece of ice four times as large as Yeouido broke off without warning. The rapid disintegration of the Larsen Ice Shelf is one of the important problems confounding the world’s polar scientists, says the Korea Polar Research Institute. Korea used the Araon to secure the technology to build a monitoring system for the ice shelf changes in the western Antarctic and carry out joint projects with other countries.

Significance of the Larsen Ice Shelf Exploration

The Weddell Sea, where the Larsen Ice Shelf is located, is known to evoke dread because of its extreme cold, even among polar explorers. Sea passage is allowed only about four months a year, but there is no way of knowing exactly when a channel will open. Even if a vessel is allowed into the sea, it may get locked in ice as the surrounding areas can quickly freeze over. The Araon has been deployed near the Antarctic ice shelf region to deliver supplies and rescue a foreign ship, but this is the first time it ventured out there for exploration purposes. In that respect, this exploratory mission was a great opportunity for the Araon to demonstrate its capacity, which the icebreaker has done successfully. Technologies pertaining to extreme region research are in general heavily guarded, as tightly as aerospace technologies, by the country that owns them. But the research team on the Araon learned the know-how of extreme region exploration by twice accompanying an American team over the past three years, raising the level of Korea’s extreme region research capabilities. The rapid melting of the ice in the South Pole causes grave concern for the earth’s environment, but it also offers scientists a chance to explore the unknown territory, since the breakage of ice shelves allows the icebreakers access to the formerly unapproachable areas. Now scientists can study the ecosystem in the polar seas and use their findings to build a scientific basis for the existence of extraterrestrial beings in future space exploration projects. Also, the sediments buried beneath the thick glacier can provide a glimpse into the earth’s climate hundreds of thousands of years ago.

The Araon

The Araon is Korea’s first icebreaking vessel launched on June 11th, 2009 after three years of shipbuilding. It was delivered to the Korea Polar Research Institute after undergoing sea trials and has been used for Antarctic explorations. The ship measures 110 meters in length and 19 meters in width, and its maximum speed is 16 knots. Its icebreaking capacity registers at 3 knots while breaking one-meter-thick ice. It is not that big for an icebreaker, weighing only 6,950 tons, but is equipped with all sorts of cutting-edge research equipment and known as a world-class research vessel. The purely Korean name “Araon” means to “travel all the seas of the world.”

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