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Researchers to use drone submarines to explore Antarctic ice shelves

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The University of Washington and Paul G. Allen Philanthropies have teamed up for an exploration of the Antarctic ice shelves using unmanned submarines. (KOMO)

SEATTLE (KOMO) - The University of Washington and Paul G. Allen Philanthropies have teamed up for an exploration of the Antarctic ice shelves.

In January, two sea glider vessels and floating software will leave New Zealand on an ice breaker from the Korean Polar Research Institute, according to the philanthropy.

“This will be the first time where sensors have been deployed under the west Antarctic ice sheet for any period of time really covering a wide area,” said Spencer Reeder, director of climate and energy for the Paul G. Allen philanthropies.

The gliders are the heart of the mission, team members said. The gliders will probe the ice shelf until they reach the inside of the cavity.

“They’re small underwater autonomous vehicles, the underwater equivalent of a drone,” said Craig Lee, an oceanography professor at UW.

Off Shilshole Monday, Lee, Reeder and UW Assistant Professor Knut Christianson were among the team testing all of the equipment before it leaves for New Zealand.

“This research lets us take measurements in one of the least accessible environments, in one of the most critical environments to measure, for understanding ice sheet change,” said Christianson, who is an assistant professor of earth and space sciences.

Reeder said the hope is that the equipment collects data from the ice shelf for a year. He said this is the first time any sensors have been deployed under the west Antarctic ice sheet for an extended period of time.

“Fingers crossed these devices will continue to collect data throughout the winter,” Reeder said.

The project leaders say they hope to learn the stability of the ice shelves and collect enough data to help them determine whether the shelves are likely to collapse.

A spokeswoman for Paul G. Allen Philanthropies said the project is being funded by a nearly $2 million grant extending over three years.

Reeder said Allen is “committed to innovation.”

For the UW the grant means having a way to explore a place rarely studied.

“Having the full picture of the temperature, the salinity, the basic water properties in an ice shelf cavity is something we haven’t been able to do except in a few limited spots,” Christianson said. “It’s really the fact that we haven’t had the chance to make these observations before.”

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