Robots en route to Antarctica to measure growing threat

Is a flooding catastrophe inevitable? An undersea robotic network will soon tell us how screwed we are.

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A partnership between the University of Washington and Paul G. Allen Philanthropies will use a network of undersea robots to observe the conditions beneath a floating Antarctic ice shelf.

If that sounds a bit academic, let me put it another way: The fate of the world may rest on whether or not a gargantuan slab of ice collapses into the ocean. Some smart people from UW are using robots to determine how screwed we are.

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See that perilous overhang? If it collapses, the world's oceans could rise catastrophically.

Ice shelves like the West Antarctic Ice Sheet play a critical role in maintaining ocean levels, acting as retaining walls to keep inland glaciers from escaping into the sea.

But ocean waters are warming, eating away at the ice shelves and leaving massive undersea caverns. If the ice above the caverns collapses, the water levels could rise catastrophically, precipitating massive flooding in coastal areas.

The extent of the undersea melting has been difficult to measure accurately. Researchers at UW's College of the Environment and in the UW Applied Physics Laboratory have teamed up to tackle the problem with robots.

"This is a high-risk, proof-of-concept test of using robotic technology in a very risky marine environment," says UW professor of oceanography Craig Lee.

The torpedo-shaped robots (technically underwater drones) are called Seagliders, and they were developed with support from the National Science Foundation. The drones will venture into ocean cavities and take readings under the ice.

"We have almost no information about the area where the glacier is floating on top of the ocean," glaciologist Knut Christianson, a UW assistant professor, told UW news. "The ice is 300 to 500 meters thick. There's no light penetrating, it's impossible to communicate with any instruments, and this environment is extremely hard on equipment -- picture big crevasses, rushing water and jagged ice."

The team created navigation algorithms to enable the Seaglider to maneuver autonomously. After winter hits the southern hemisphere, the team won't receive any communication from the robots for several months.

In addition to Seagliders, the team is using autonomous float drifts that move with the current and can change their buoyancy.

Because the area of measurement is so large, no single robotic system will give a meaningful reading. But by networking several robots, the team is hoping they can gain valuable new insights into the rate of melting underway.

The mission is now underway, with the first results expected in late 2018.