This month a fleet of seven underwater drones will undertake a year-long journey to map and observe the melting of our arctic ice shelves. By observing ice shelves as they slowly deteriorate, scientists hope to be able to forecast exactly how quickly global sea levels will rise and which ocean communities are the most at risk.
Developed by the University of Washington in Seattle, the drones face a year in a harsh and misunderstood ocean environment. Focusing on the Pine Island Glacier, the study targets the fastest melting glacier in Antarctica, which is responsible for about 25% of Antarctica’s ice loss. Though core samples have been taken by drilling through the ice, scientists still don’t have an accurate model as to how quickly the area is melting. Though the rate of melting increased by 73 percent from 1974 to 2007, the area has continued to melt at an accelerated rate since this initial study and has left scientists unable to accurately predict what the next 10 to 20 years may look like.
The robotic fleet being deployed consists of three self-propelled drones called Seagliders which will be accompanied by four floats. Each of the drones will follow a set routed around and back from the ice shelves, with each journey taking several weeks. Once the trip is complete, the drones will attempt to surface and upload their data to an orbiting satellite. From there, new instructions will be sent and their journey will begin again.
Unfortunately, due to the harsh environment, the drones have the possibility of getting stuck in a crevasse or being trapped underneath a terrace. If stuck, they’ll have no way to escape or even signal for help. If the drones do survive though, their data will be invaluable to our understanding of arctic melt and the effects of global warming.
Images: University of Washington, Wikimedia
Source: Scientific America