Ice-Diving Drones Embark on Risky Antarctic Mission: But Why?

One of the major side effects of climate change is rising sea levels. This is caused by a warming globe leading to melting ice in the Arctic and Antarctic regions. The Antarctic shelves are an area of particular interest to climate change scientists. These shelves are huge sheets of ice that contain canyons, caves, and an entire underwater world that has not been mapped before.

Quantifying the effect of warming waters on the Antarctic shelves would be a crucial step in determining how rising sea levels could affect humans that live near the ocean today. So, in December 2017, seven underwater, unmanned robotic probes were developed by the University of Washington in Seattle to explore the world under the ice.

These drones are more suited to open water than navigating the caves and tunnels of an Antarctic ice shelf. However, they have been reinforced, updated, and generally toughened-up to help increase their chances of survival. It is important to note that there is still a considerable risk that some of the drones may not return – and at a cost of $100,000 for each of the Seaglider probes, this would be no small loss.

The Seagliders will be deployed under the Pine Island Ice Shelf. This is a site of a lot of melting ice that raises the sea level. Plus, the melting rate from the nearby Pine Island Glacier has increased exponentially in the last forty years. This part of Antarctica contains enough ice to flood every single coastal city on the entire planet.

The exact mechanics of Antarctic ice shelves are still a bit of a mystery. Hence, releasing these probes into the Pine Island shelf will help to increase our understanding of these areas and how the freezing and melting cycle works. It will also give us some information on how global climate change is affecting melting rates. After all, the warmer the water is that flows towards the shelf, the higher the melting rate will be.

The Seagliders themselves are a marvel of modern engineering. They can self-adjust their wing pitch and buoyancy in order to glide in the direction they are meant to go. Plus, they can calculate their own positions by bouncing a signal off of the three buoys that the research team will place around the shelf. This will allow the drone to be pretty self-sufficient when it comes to wayfinding. After the drones make it through the ice shelf, they will surface and upload their data through a satellite uplink to the researchers. Three of this type of drone will be released into the ice shelf.

These wayfinding drones will be accompanied by four floats. These are only able to adjust their buoyancy, leaving them subject to the whims of the ocean currents. Of the two types of drones, it is more likely that the floats will be lost due to their inability to navigate. It is a blind shot – they have been programmed to travel on a low, inward path for a few weeks before surfacing. Of course, these floats are only about a third of the price of a Seaglider. Therefore, the loss of one of these would be much less devastating.

There is, unfortunately, considerable risk that must be assumed in a mission of this nature. As mentioned earlier, the chance of losing some drones during this mission is rather high. They could get trapped in the ice, rise up into an underwater cavern, or undergo similar scenarios that would result in the loss of the machine.

The risk is so high on this project, in fact, that the National Science Foundation refused to fund it entirely. However, the Paul G. Allen Philanthropies foundation ended up donating about $2 million toward the completion of the project, rendering it yet again feasible. Though all seven of the drones may not make it through the shelf and to the surface, we can hope that the data attained by those that do will be crucial to our understanding of how the ice shelves work.

The surviving drones will be collected by University of Washington researchers in 2019. Plus, they have enough battery life to last an additional year if they cannot be found at all. It is possible that they might surface in the Southern Ocean, where they should be picked up by other researchers. Either way, these drones will provide some crucial information to our understanding of the ice shelves and how they are affected by climate change.

The flooding potential of a melting ice shelf is non-mitigatable. This force of nature, released by global climate change, could drastically alter the face of our planet as we know it. These types of occurrences are why adjusting human behavior to reduce climate change is so essential. Though the United States is no longer a part of the Paris Climate Agreement, global warming will remain an area of concern regardless of the incumbent Administration.

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