French explorer and environmentalist Jean-Louis Etienne has spent the last 10 years designing a scientific vessel capable of braving the terrifying waves and winds found there.
His floating laboratory, called the Polar Pod, will stand 100 meters high and weigh 1,000 tons. The structure will be towed horizontally from the east coast of South Africa to the powerful current surrounding Antarctica. It will then "flip" vertically by filling 150-ton seawater ballast tanks, a feature inspired by the US oceanographic platform FLIP.
The vessel has no engine and will be driven by the Antarctic Circumpolar Current, drifting at about 1 knot per hour. The top of the structure -- 20 meters above the water -- is where the crew will live, sleep and work. The submerged portion keeps it steady. "It is 80 meters below sea level, fixed in very calm water -- that's why it's very stable," Etienne tells CNN.
The plan is to "orbit" Antarctica twice in three years and collect data on how humans have impacted the Southern Ocean, explains Etienne. While the main focus will be on measuring the ocean's capacity to absorb carbon dioxide (CO2), the Polar Pod will be equipped with sensors to measure acidity and wave dynamics, among other things.
"This very large area of cold water all around Antarctica is the largest ocean carbon sink of the planet," he says -- but we don't know how its ability to absorb carbon dioxide changes throughout the year. "The stability of the Polar Pod will allow the scientists to get this information."
As the structure will be silent, it will be able to use hydrophones -- underwater microphones -- to record the "acoustic signature" characteristic of different sea creatures, from krill to whales, and perform a census of marine life, explains Etienne. He also plans for the vessel to help calibrate satellites for NASA and the European Space Agency.
Six wind generators will power the sensors and on-board laboratory, and data will be transmitted to researchers in real-time. The team also plans to transmit live broadcasts and lectures from the Polar Pod.
There will be eight people on board at any given time -- four sailors tasked with navigating (and deploying sails to avoid icebergs), three scientists, and a cook. Every two months a ship will bring supplies, a new crew, and sometimes Etienne himself. The doctor and explorer, now 74, has undertaken numerous expeditions to remote polar regions. He hauled a sled on a solo overland trip to the North Pole in 1986 and crossed the Arctic Ocean in a hot-air balloon in 2010.
Construction of the Polar Pod has not yet begun but will be funded by the French government. French oceanographic institution Ifremer will put the contract to build the vessel out to tender.
Etienne is in the process of raising funds for a three-year expedition he hopes will begin in 2024. He says he is not able to disclose costs or how much money has been raised to date.
In good company