Friday, 20 November 2015

Discovery Friday (Discovery II)

For me, the most enigmatic of all the Discoveries is Discovery II. I have sailed on the two latest editions of RRS Discovery and read about the first RRS Discovery with Captain Scott in the Antarctic (more about this next week). But Discovery II, built in Glasgow in 1928, is the ship I know least about. It was interesting then that Discovery II features so heavily in the photographs on the bulkheads in the new Discovery.

Discovery II - The first purpose-built research ship

Discovery II is the only ship in the series that seems to have kept its number in the sequence—we don’t refer to our current home as Discovery IV, just Discovery. When it was built, it was the first purpose built research vessel in the world. She was 80m long with a single screw propeller that could notch up a dizzying 13.5 knots! By contrast, the current Discovery has a spec of 12 knots.

Discovery II spent much of her life working in the Southern Ocean. At the time, there was much focus on the whale trade. This lead to a lot of interest in the Southern Ocean. Discovery II did much work on mapping whale populations and krill abundance. She also gathered valuable hydrographic and chemical data from these infrequently visited waters.

The drama of sailing around Antarctica is captured in a number of the photographs on board here. There is Discovery II trapped in the ice while a crewman lies on the ice, ably viewed by 17 other seamen! Or Discovery II sitting in a bay surrounded by snowy mountains. Penguins and the skeletal remains of a victim of the whale trade lie in the foreground.

Discovery II in the ice

Providing scientific support for whaling seems very odd for me as a modern scientist. But in many ways this was the origins of British oceanography. In her later years, Discovery II moved northwards. One of her final contributions was a transatlantic hydrographic section that formed part of the International Geophysical Year in 1957. The important data gathered on that expedition was used near the start of the RAPID project. And formed one of the five hydrographic sections analysed by Harry Bryden and coauthors in a paper in the journal Nature that indicated the Atlantic overturning circulation had slowed from 1957 to 2004. This study provided great motivation for the RAPID project, thus linking Discovery II with what we are doing here and now.

It reminds me of a great quote from Prof. Carl Wunsch in MIT about making observations of the ocean or any part of the climate system. He says that “adequately sampled, carefully calibrated, quality controlled, and archived (observational) data for key elements of the climate system will be useful indefinitely.” And surely this has proved true for the scientists who sailed on Discovery II. 

Discovery II in Antarctica with penguins in the foreground

Written by Gerard (posted by Darren)

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