Studying in the Antarctic has always been incredibly difficult for researchers. Frigid temperatures, weather and just pure logistics cause immediate headaches when planning expeditions. In recent months and years, researchers have turned to underwater robots to do the heavy lifting for them.

A 300 pound, autonomous underwater vehicle (AUV) is making life a lot easier for researchers. And, providing valuable insight into uncharted regions of Antarctic sea ice.

“Putting an AUV together to map the underside of sea ice is challenging from a software, navigation and acoustic communications standpoint,” says Hanumant Singh, an engineering scientist at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI). The Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution was responsible for designing, building and operating the AUV.

ice robot

Singh praised the AUV as “ideal for this application where we were doing detailed floe-scale mapping and deploying, as well as recovering in close-packed ice conditions.”

Co-author of the study Dr. Jeremy Wilkinson from British Antarctic Survey, “The AUV missions have given us a real insight into the nature of Antarctic sea ice – like looking through a microscope. We can now measure ice in far greater detail and were excited to measure ice up to 17 metres thick.”

The average thickness of the ice ranged from 1.4 meters to 5.5 meters. The research team also found that more than three-quarters of the ice was deformed. Meaning, ice chunks smashed into one another to create bigger pieces of ice.

In the study abstract, the authors conclude, Our surveys indicate that the floes are much thicker and more deformed than reported by most drilling and ship-based measurements of Antarctic sea ice. We suggest that thick ice in the near-coastal and interior pack may be under-represented in existing in situ assessments of Antarctic sea ice and hence, on average, Antarctic sea ice may be thicker than previously thought.

The researchers next move will be to expand their mapping surveys. Their most recent surveys covered just 500,000 square meters.

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