Scientific expedition

Delineating the responses of Southern Ocean ecosystems to climate change

Photo ©PolarSteps

As part of the TANGO1 project, financed by BELSPO, nine Belgian researchers (ULiège, ULB and UGent) have boarded a sailing boat bound for Antarctica. For one month they will collect a maximum of samples in order to better understand the responses of ecosystems to environmental changes in the Southern Ocean.


elgian researchers have set sail for Antarctica on a sailing boat. Their goal? To contribute to our understanding of the responses of ecosystems to environmental changes in the Southern Ocean. The team includes nine researchers from the Universities of Liège, Brussels and Ghent, including Bruno Delille, glaciologist and biogeochemist, F.R.S-FNRS research Associate, Axelle Brusselman, glaciologist and biogeochemist, and Martin Dogniez, ecologist, F.R.S-FNRS research fellow, researchers in the FOCUS research unit of the Faculty of Science of the ULiège. Remaining in Liège, marine ecologists Loïc Michel - research fellow - and Gilles Lepoint - FNRS research associate - will analyse the data collected by their colleagues.

This mission is quite original in that the researchers will use the sailing boat as a research platform," explains Loïc Michel. The objective of the TANGO1 mission is to observe the responses of Antarctic marine ecosystems to climate change, particularly at shallow depths. As climate change is significant and intensifying in the polar regions, dramatic changes in ecosystem structure and function may occur and will be difficult, if not impossible, to reverse. The ongoing debate at the level of the IPCC and SCAR - the Scientific Committee on Antarctic Research - highlights the lack of knowledge about the different thresholds and states of the ecosystems, their habitability and stability, and whether they are true alternative states of the same system," says Bruno Dellile, project promoter for the University of Liège. We also do not know to what extent transition points are thresholds, whereas this knowledge is crucial in the management of ecosystems to maintain long-term habitability in a context of global change and to protect biodiversity and ecosystem services as part of the natural environment.

By studying ecological thresholds at different levels of organisation - including communities, species interactions, populations, processes and functions - as well as entire ecosystems - with a focus on the benthos, organisms living in close contact with the seabed, the TANGO science project aims to identify not only the conditions for habitability, but also the factors that compromise habitability, such as carbon cycle imbalance. Researchers will carry out detailed biodiversity work in a variety of areas, combining a range of techniques: scuba diving, drone deployment, remotely operated submersible (ROV), 3D imaging, isotope and genetic studies.

The entire crew will be back in Argentina in mid-March. Afterwards, some members will return to Belgium, but others, including Martin Dogniez from ULiège, will continue sampling the benthos in the Patagonian fjords in collaboration with local colleagues.

This expedition is part of the BRAIN-BE project "TANGO", financed by BELSPO, the Belgian science policy.

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