A University of Washington research team has secured a $1.8 million grant from Paul G. Allen Philanthropies to deploy a fleet of submersible drones in the Antarctic Pine Island Glacier. The region’s vast, remote labyrinth of glaciers are flanked by floating ice shelves that are as much as a third of a mile thick. The underwater fleet will probe the tunnels and crevasses that form within these massive chunks of ice in a mission to acquire more in-depth intel about the potential for these glaciers to break off, drift into warmer bodies of water, and accelerate sea-level rise.
The Pine Island Glacier is one of many on Antarctica’s Western ice shelf, which will be the general site of the UW team’s research. The waters of the Southern Ocean, the frigid body in and on which these massive segments of ice lie, has carved inverted canyons and caves where warm and cold water meet beneath the icy surface. The seven robots commissioned by the University of Washington’s Applied Physics Lab and College of the Environment will embark on a year-long mission into these dark, freezing waters in search of more information about the ice’s melting processes.
The costliness and uncertainty of conducting research beneath Antarctica’s ice shelves have thus far prevented similar missions. However, tech billionaire Paul Allen chose to take on the cost of the research, federal grants for which were unlikely to be secured based on the immense risk that one or more of the submersible drones may never return from the depths.
The primary device which will be relied upon to collect data is called a Seaglider. With a production cost of over $100,000 per Seaglider, it is clear why private funding was needed to get the research project off the ground. Equipped with sensors, three gliders will be deployed, accompanied by four drifting floats. The gliders will adjust their wings and buoyancy to reach a programmed destination, returning to the surface – hopefully – in order to transmit data about salinity, oxygen concentration, and other vital factors to an awaiting satellite. The less-costly, $30,000 floats will submerge themselves into a more static destination for a matter of weeks, attaining similar information to the glider before returning to the surface. There is no guarantee that either device will avoid getting trapped in or under the ice, lost for good.
“Going underneath the ice is risky enough that the chance of complete failure is reasonably high,” oceanographer Craig Lee said. Still, “If we can routinely use these instruments underneath the ice shelves, it’s really a big benefit for the science because we’re limited by the data that we can collect underneath the ice shelf,” oceanographer James Girton added.