ANTARCTICA: Deep-dive drones

ANTARCTICA: Deep-dive drones

A University of Washington (UW) researcher heaved a half-million U.S. dollars’ worth of robotic sensors into the frigid waters off Antarctica and hoped for the best.

If all goes well, the drones could gather some of the most extensive measurements ever from beneath the continent’s vast and vulnerable western ice shelf. If things go wrong, the bots could vanish into the labyrinth of cavities and crevasses under the ice, never to be heard from again.

“The environment is just insanely harsh and remote,” said oceanographer Craig Lee of the UW’s Applied Physics Laboratory in Seattle. “This is very high risk.”

The goal is to answer one of the biggest questions in climate science: How much and how quickly will sea level rise due to melting Antarctic ice sheets?

The uncertain odds of success made the project a long shot for federal research grants. Instead, Seattle billionaire Paul Allen is bankrolling the expedition. He has built a reputation for funding risky research with the potential for major impact.

Paul G. Allen Philanthropies put up U.S. $1.8 million for the Antarctic field test to see if the robots can navigate the treacherous interface where ice shelves and ocean meet, gather data, and transmit it to Seattle.

If the probes pass muster, fleets of the relatively inexpensive instruments could be deployed in the future to provide long-term measurements of ocean currents, water temperatures and the rate of melting.

“This will be a technological feat if we can pull it off,” said Spencer Reeder, director of climate and energy for Allen Philanthropies. “We’re willing to shoulder that initial risk, and if we can demonstrate it’s possible, then others can follow suit.”

Current projections of global sea-level rise by 2100 vary widely — from 0.3 meters to almost 2 meters — largely because scientists can’t predict the fate of the massive ice sheets that cover Antarctica and Greenland. West Antarctica alone holds enough ice to raise sea levels worldwide nearly 3 meters.

“We don’t think that’s going to happen anytime soon,” said UW glaciologist Knut Christianson. “But losing even a fraction of that ice could create a substantial challenge for coastal communities.”

The glaciers that cover Antarctica are buttressed by floating ice shelves up to about a half kilometer thick. If global warming causes the shelves to collapse or melt, the glaciers could flow more rapidly into the ocean and accelerate sea-level rise.

The UW team plans to focus on Pine Island Glacier, Antarctica’s fastest-melting ice sheet, where a huge iceberg broke off this fall. The glacier’s flow has sped up nearly 75 percent in the past 40 years, possibly due to thinning of the floating ice shelf.

The Associated Press