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The Weddell Sea

Weddell Sea is located in northwestern Antarctica. The shelf is bounded by the Antarctic Peninsula and by Coats Land. The vast Ronne and Filchner ice shelves permanently cover the inner part of the sea. The Weddell shelf was named after James Weddell, a British navigator and whaler, who claimed to have discovered the sea in 1823. The Scottish explorer William Bruce further investigated the sea area from 1902 to 1904. It was studied fully during the International Geophysical Year (1957-58) and has since then been a site of continuing investigation by different World-wide nations.


The Weddell Sea ocean-gyre features a pronounced double cell current structure, which is caused by the bathymetric effects of Maud Rise and Astrid Ridge to the East. The coastal spring polynyas are wind-induced phenomena. Tabular icebergs drifting out of the Weddell Sea are frequently seen.


Most common marine species in the Weddell Sea are the Weddell Seal, Adelie Penguin and Crabeater Seals. The volcanic Paulet Island hosts over a million pairs of Adelie Penguins as well as blue-eyed Cormorants and many other birds. There is a good chance to see young Emperor Penguins on the drifting ice floes and tabular icebergs. Half Moon Island in the South Shetland Islands has extensive penguin rookeries and many elephant seals.


The historic huts built by the Nordenskjöld expedition from 1901 to 1904 still stand. Shackleton’s ship ‘Endurance’ was trapped and crushed in the ice of the Weddell Sea in 1915 and he wintered at Elephant Island. Many other adventurers and explorers - like e.g. Amundsen and Scott - reached Antarctica via the Weddell Sea.



Main islands and island groups

Berkner Island, South Shetland and South Orkney Islands, Elephant Island


The Photo:

Moderate-resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS) satellite imagery analyzed at the University of Colorado’s National Snow and Ice Data Center revealed that the northern section of the Larsen B ice shelf, a large floating ice mass on the eastern side of the Antarctic Peninsula, has shattered and separated from the continent. This particular image was taken on March 5, 2002. The shattered ice formed a plume of thousands of icebergs adrift in the Weddell Sea. A total of about 3,250 square kilometers of shelf area disintegrated in a 35-day period beginning on January 31, 2002. Over the last five years, the shelf has lost a total of 5,700 square kilometers and is now about 40 percent the size of its previous minimum stable extent.

Ice shelves are thick plates of ice, fed by glaciers, that float on the ocean around much of Antarctica. The Larsen B shelf was about 220 meters thick. Based on studies of ice flow and sediment thickness beneath the ice shelf, scientists believe that it existed for at least 400 years prior to this event and likely existed since the end of the last major glaciation 12,000 years ago.