Robot Yields Surprising Measurements of Antarctic Sea Ice


Antarctic ice has been mapped in 3D with a robotic explorer for the first time ever, revealing surprising results, showing ice is melting much faster than once believed.

Ice depths were recorded in regions which had never before been explored, through use of the robotic vehicle. Researchers from the United States, Australia and the United Kingdom conducted research aimed at understanding how climate change is affecting ice in polar regions.

Satellites are able to observe ice cover in the Antarctic, but snow cover can make measurements difficult. Observations are also taken from ships, viewing ice while offshore, as well as through drilling expeditions.

Seabed is a new Autonomous Underwater Vehicle (AUV) designed to better understand how ice is changing in remote areas of Antarctica. The marine craft contains an upward-looking sonar, able to measure ice cover as it plies frozen waters.

The AUV was guided along a series of parallel lines between 65 and 100 feet under water, showing ice melting faster than expected.

"What this effort does is show that observations from AUVs under the ice are possible and there is a very rich data set that you can get from them. This work is an important step toward making the kinds of routine measurements we need in order to really monitor and understand what's happening with the ice and the large scale changes that are occurring,"  Ted Maksym from the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI) said.

A pair of underwater vehicles were employed in the study, mapping Antarctic ice in 2010 and 2012, examining the frozen surface, up to 55 feet thick. The IceBell and Sipex-2 missions examined areas of Antarctica including the Weddell, Wilkes Land, and Bellingshausen sectors, totaling 5.38 million square feet of territory.

"Seabed's maneuverability and stability made it ideal for this application where we were doing detailed floe-scale mapping and deploying, as well as recovering in close-packed ice conditions. It would have been tough to do many of the missions we did, especially under the conditions we encountered, with some of the larger vehicles," Hanumant Singh, from the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, said.

These 3D maps of Antarctic ice could help researchers better understand how these formations develop, as well as how they were affected by surrounding water. The study could also help revel previously-unknown details concerning how sea ice in the Antarctic compares to similar formations in waters surrounding the North Pole.

The Seabed vehicle is around seven feet long long, and weighs roughly 400 pounds.

Investigation of melting ice in Antarctica was profiled in the journal Nature Geoscience

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