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Young engineer breaks the ice in Antarctica




Jamie Jacobson travelled to Antarctica last year on the SA Agulhas II, a South African icebreaking polar supply and research ship owned by the department of environmental affairs. At just 24 years old, he got to go where few have ever tread, sailing through storms, icebergs, and undisturbed landscapes in order to conduct groundbreaking research on the sea ice that has an impact on our climate.

Jacobson, who matriculated from Herzlia in Cape Town in 2014, was invited to fill one of two coveted spots on this prestigious winter expedition. He says growing up in the Cape Town Jewish community and attending Herzlia were key factors in getting him to where he is today. As a Master of Engineering student at the University of Cape Town, he is working to create a series of inexpensive robots that can transmit data about sea ice. The trip would allow him to test his research.

Going to Antarctica in winter isn’t ideal. It’s harsh, bitterly cold, and remote, but that’s when the sea ice develops. On a wintery Cape Town day in July 2019, he boarded the SA Agulhas II, part of a 100-person international research expedition comprising 17 teams from at least 22 countries.

“The trip of seven days was exhilarating, but we only had about half a day without a storm,” says Jacobson. “As soon as we were out in the open sea, we were in storm conditions. It was ten times the strength of the South Easter [the wind that batters Cape Town in summer], there were huge swells, rain and snow, and we felt everything. In fact, for the first three days, everyone was seasick.

“This is because we were in the latitudes between 40 and 50 degrees south of the equator, known as ‘the roaring forties’, the area of the world with the highest number of storms at any given time. It’s a giant ‘mixing pot’ of storms and swells.

“Then, one day we woke up, it was calm, and we were surrounded by ice. We hadn’t noticed the temperature dropping, but it was suddenly cold. All of a sudden, the sea was flat, almost like syrup,” he recalls.

“All around us, the water had a glowing luminescent quality, and we started to see ice, which at first looked like jellyfish. These ice blocks got bigger and bigger, until it looked like a desert of flat ‘pancakes’ in the ocean. These discs extended for miles – it was beautiful and surreal. We saw birds, albatross, penguins, and even a walrus. We had birdwatchers with us, who taught us about the bird life we saw.”

They eventually reached sheets of ice that extended for miles. “The SA Agulhas II is an icebreaker, and it was amazing hearing the crunching and crackling of the ice and looking back to see the ice parting behind us.”

While the environment outside the ship was harsh, inside it was surprisingly luxurious.

“It was like being on a cruise ship. We had to dress up for dinner, everything was in immaculate condition, and there was so much to do. It was like being in a hotel except it also had research laboratories where we spent a lot of our time. It also felt like all we did was eat! There was breakfast, lunch, tea, and dinner, and the food was phenomenal. Everything ran perfectly and on schedule. The crew were fantastic, friendly, helpful, and hardworking. Most people on the ship were South African but I also met people from Spain, Australia, Sweden, Mozambique, and Zimbabwe.”

Passionate about the ocean and technology from a young age, Jacobson elaborates on his research. “Following a massive anomaly in the sea ice in 2016, an international research effort formed and set out to study the dynamics of the region from as many angles as possible. When observing the ice cycle, it was found that 60% of the sea ice had disappeared during the crucial formation months. In order to understand why this phenomenon occurred, the SCALE [Southern oCean seAsonaL Experiment] research initiative was born. It forms part of a bigger study of understanding Antarctica and its impact on climate change. If anything shifts in the climate there, we feel it in our weather in Cape Town and around the world.

“South Africa is one of only 20 countries with access to Antarctica. It’s not sustainable to send research teams on a continuous basis, as it costs about a million rand a day to run ships there. So it’s important to develop tools that can monitor the region and be deployed for a few years.”

Once they hit the ice, Jacobson got down to work. “I don’t think I slept for three days. No one slept. I remember having a quick rest at 23:00, and waking up again at 03:00 to continue working. We wore arctic gear, and spent most of our time being lowered off the boat in a little hanging basket where we drilled for ice cores and deployed the robots on the ice floes [a sheet of floating ice].”

It was a bittersweet time as Jacobson battled with the challenges the environment posed for his work. Although he had anticipated problems like the effect of ice on batteries, in the end, his robots weren’t able to conduct data.

“It’s a new environment that few people have built robots in, and things went wrong. But it was also a success because we learnt so much about what we need to do to get a working device.”

After four days on the ice, the ship began its slow journey home, stopping every now and then for researchers to collect more ice samples. “I was sad to leave the region. I saw things I never thought I would see. It was unforgettable, and I’m eternally grateful. As we approached East London [where the ship would dock], we saw the looming coastline, the wind and waves died down, and it was suddenly warmer. Coming home was a great feeling, but it was also hard.”

For him, the expedition is over, but not the project. “The world doesn’t judge you on how far you go, but how you deal with failure. Will you let it define you? Or will you learn from it and build on it?” He plans to do the latter, and will continue to work on creating a robot that can monitor sea ice. He encourages young members of the community to look into the engineering field. “Anyone with passion and interest can be an engineer,” Jacobson says.

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