The Swedish Albatross expedition provided invaluable knowledge about the sea
The Swedish scientific Albatross expedition laid the foundation for today's modern deep-sea research and had an enormous influence on our knowledge about the ocean. Still, not many people know about its existence. This autumn marks 75 years since the sailing vessel returned to the University of Gothenburg after the 15-month round-the-world voyage, something that will be high-lighted in several ways.
“I think we should be more proud of the Albatross expedition. It provided us with invaluable new knowledge, new technological advances, and developed research in both oceanography, marine geology, and marine biology, not only in Sweden, but also internationally,” says Lennart Bornmalm, senior lecturer in marine geology at the Department of Marine Sciences, University of Gothenburg, and something of an expert on the Albatross expedition.
On April 24, Lennart Bornmalm will present a summary of the scientific and technical significance of the expedition at the international scientific conference EGU General Assembly 2023. More activities to celebrate the return are planned for the autumn, for example a symposium volume where Lennart Bornmalm, together with several research colleagues and people connected to the expedition, will give a comprehensive picture of the importance of the expedition.
Start of a new scientific field
During the expedition, a newly constructed Swedish sampling instrument, a so-called Kullenberg piston corer, was used. The instruments previously used had only managed to go about two meters down into the sediments, that is, a few thousand years. With the new Kullenberg piston corer, the researchers succeeded in retrieving sediment cores that were 20 meters long.
“Thanks to the significantly longer sediment cores, the researchers could go back around two million years in time. And it became possible for the researchers to, like archaeologists, study climate history, and the processes of the world's oceans over time in different sediment layers, for example glacial deposits and climate changes," says Lennart Bornmalm.
The long sediment cores of the Albatross expedition thus became the start of a new scientific field, namely paleo-oceanography – the study of the Earth's oceanographic history through analysis of the ocean's sedimentary deposits. The sediment cores from the expedition are currently stored at the University of Gothenburg, but future storage of the cores is currently unclear.
Invaluable contributions to marine research
The Albatross expedition also provided new knowledge within the field of marine biology. Before the expedition, the prevailing opinion was that life could not exist in the deep ocean. But the expedition trawled at a record depth of 7,900 meters, and in the catch, there were both large and small organisms. The Swedish researchers were thus able to prove that there was marine life even at such great depths.
It was also in the deep-sea mud samples brought home with the Albatross expedition that the researchers discovered for the first time that oxygen isotopes in marine microfossils function as "paleo-thermometers", and could convey historical information about the climate.
“We know this only because of the Albatross expedition, and oxygen isotopes are today called the "backbone of paleo-oceanography". That knowledge is something that I, and many other climate scientists around the world, still use in our research today," says Irina Polovodova Asteman, lecturer in marine geology at the University of Gothenburg.
“A legacy to be very proud of”
The Albatross expedition sailed around the world between 1 July 1947, and 3 October 1948. This autumn, it’s 75 years since the expedition returned to the University of Gothenburg with 400 sediment cores, countless deep-sea organisms, newly developed sampling instruments, and a completely new knowledge base about the deep sea and the sediments.
“We always tell our students that the Albatross expedition is incredibly important. It’s a legacy that we should be very proud of,” says Irina Polovodova Asteman.
Lennart Bornmalm, Senior Lecturer
Tel: + 46 31 786 28 44
Irina Polovodova Asteman, Senior Lecturer
Tel: + 46 31 786 28 60
Annika Wall, communications officer
Tel: + 46 31 786 48 92
On 4 July 1947, the combined motor and sailing vessel Albatross left Gothenburg harbour for a research expedition that would take the Swedish researchers around the world and return 3 October 1948. The initiator and expedition leader for this ground-breaking oceanographic expedition was Hans Pettersson, professor of oceanography at the University of Gothenburg.
Also on the expedition were:
• Börje Kullenberg, later professor of oceanography at the University of Gothenburg,
• Gustaf Arrhenius, later professor of oceanography at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography in San Diego,
• Axel Jonasson, an instrument maker, who worked with the Kullenberglodet
• Waloddi Weibull, professor at KTH
The ship used on the expedition was the Broström Group's school ship Albatross, a 4-masted motorised sailing vessel that was sailed by the group's naval officer students. To ensure the best possible weather conditions throughout the expedition, the route was mainly located inside the Tropics, along the equator.
Scientific advances thanks to the Albatross expedition:
• Development of a new scientific discipline: paleo-oceanography. That is, the study of the oceanographic history of the earth through the analysis of the sedimentary deposits of the sea.
• Marine life in the deep sea. Before the expedition, the prevailing opinion was that life could not exist at great ocean depths.
• Obtain climate information using oxygen isotopes
Technological advances thanks to the Albatross expedition:
• The Kullenberg piston corer, developed by Börje Kullenberg. Today, it is an established method to use a piston corer, and one can now take sediment cores up to a length of just over 60 meters.
• Seismic prospecting methods to record the thickness of sediment layers, developed by Waloddi Weibull, professor at KTH.