Boaty McBoatface Just Completed Its First Mission, Casting New Light on Southern Ocean Abyss

In 2016 the British Natural Environment Research Council (NERC) asked the public to help name one of their new research ships via an internet poll. Unexpectedly, the results made international headlines when it was announced that the most popular name choice was "Boaty McBoatface"—first suggested as a joke by a local radio DJ.

In the end, the NERC decided the name was too silly to become the official title for its ship. Instead the moniker was given to one of its autonomous submarines from the Autosub Long Range class. Now, "Boaty" has completed its first mission, providing new insights into the increasingly strong winds that have been blowing over the Southern Ocean and how they are contributing to rising sea temperatures.

During a three-day research expedition aboard the RRS James Clark in 2017, scientists from Princeton University, the University of Southampton in the U.K., the British Antarctic Survey, the U.K. National Oceanography Centre and the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution used Boaty to take measurements at the bottom of the Southern Ocean.

In total, the autonomous vehicle traveled more than 110 miles through underwater valleys, reaching depths of more than 13,000 feet, all the while collecting data on the changing sea temperature, water salt levels and ocean turbulence.

Scientists know that factors such as the hole in the ozone layer above Antarctica and rising temperatures have led to stronger winds in the Southern Ocean region in recent decades. Now, the data collected by Boaty and the RRS James Clark demonstrates how these winds are responsible for a previously undocumented water-mixing mechanism, according to a study published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

"The expedition sought to discover an ocean mechanism by which strengthening winds over the Southern Ocean—one of the major features of ongoing climate change—could explain the warming of the world ocean's abyssal waters, which has been reported extensively in recent decades, and which accounts for a substantial fraction of global sea level rise," Alberto Naveira Garabato, lead author of the expedition from the University of Southampton in the U.K., told Newsweek.

"The reason we focused on the Southern Ocean is that it is there that the waters filling the global ocean abyss sink from the surface to the seabed," he said. "This happens as a result of cold winds blowing off Antarctica cooling the ocean's surface waters near the Antarctic coast, making them denser and heavier. This is why they sink."

Essentially, the winds create turbulence deep in the Southern Ocean, which causes warm water at medium depths to mix with cold water in the abyss. This, in turn, leads to warming of the water at the bottom of the seabed—a significant factor in rising sea levels.

"The key finding is that we identified the mechanism we sought to find—this had never been observed," Garabato said. "The mechanism entails the generation of strong ocean turbulence as deep, wind-powered ocean currents navigate the narrow valleys and steep cliffs between submarine mountains in the Southern Ocean. The turbulence mixes warm waters at intermediate depths with cold abyssal waters and, in this way, warms the abyssal waters."

According to the researchers involved, the findings could have significant implications for our understanding of climate change's impacts and rising sea levels given that the mechanism they uncovered is not included in current ocean models.

"Our study is an important step in understanding how the climate change happening in the remote and inhospitable Antarctic waters will impact the warming of the oceans as a whole and future sea level rise," Garabato said in statement.

"These findings imply that, in order to predict how sea levels are going to rise around us in coming decades, we need to understand how Antarctic winds are going to evolve—since our mechanism means that further intensification of these winds may result in more deep-ocean warming and faster sea level rise," he told Newsweek.

This article was updated to include additional comments from Alberto Naveira Garabato.

Boaty McBoatface
Boaty McBoatface. British Antarctic Survey/Povl Abrahamsen