How Much Longer Can Coastal Cities Survive? Robots Swimming Under Ice in Antarctica Will Deliver the Countdown

The Thwaites Glacier in West Antarctica is seen in this image from NASA. Reuters/NASA/Handout via Reuters

A South Korean polar research icebreaker has been trudging between New Zealand and Antarctica for weeks. Aboard the ship are several scientists, who expected to launch swimming robots beneath Antarctic ice shelves in an unprecedented project to advance our understanding of the fate of coastal cities. The project, albeit risky, will gather crucial data that scientists simply have not had access to before—all in an attempt to understand how the ice is melting and causing sea level rise.

In the coming days, researchers will be sending valuable equipment beneath ice shelves to collect data over the course of the year. The team will deploy three Seagliders and four ice floats; the nearly $2 million project was funded by Paul G. Allen Philanthropies. The ice shelves these bots will study don't specifically cause sea level rise—rather, they act like a buttress for Antarctica's ice sheets, which are filled with glaciers that are slipping into the sea. Despite the vast amount of what we do know about Antarctica, there is plenty we don't know—partly because of how difficult it is to study.

This sketch shows how self-driving Seagliders and floats will track conditions below an Antarctic ice shelf. Inside these caves, warmer saltwater flows in on the bottom, carrying heat which may eat away at the ice, and fresher glacial meltwater flows out above. University of Washington

"It's very complicated and hazardous to navigate in and that's been one of the impediments to sending robotic submarine missions that do not have autonomous navigation technology," Knut Christianson, glaciologist on the project from the University of Washington, told Newsweek. "There's no guarantee that you'll get good data back—you might just lose whatever drone you send underneath there."

Beneath the ice shelves is a cavernous, icy terrain, with channels, crevasses, and nooks that even the most advanced robots could get stuck in. The bots will investigate the underbelly of the Dotson ice shelf, which is slightly larger than Rhode Island. That underbelly is the scientists' target point, as there is increasing evidence that ice is melting from the warmer oceans below. But, since much of ice observation has been from space using satellite data, the processes between ice and ocean aren't extensively understood.

Pope, Smith and Kohler glaciers flow into the Dotson ice shelf. The more unstable the ice shelf is, the quicker these glaciers will slide into the ocean causing sea level rise. NASA/Earth Observatory

That's where these swimming robotic drones come in.

So-called underwater autonomous vehicles have traveled beneath sea ice in the Arctic before, and even near Antarctic ice shelves, but never for this length of time. The Seagliders will use coded instructions and navigate the icy depths on their own, with only sound beacons used to locate them. They will gather the missing physical data from these ice shelves over nearly one year.

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An underwater image of the robotic instrument called a profiling float, is dipped into the Puget Sound, Washington. University of Washington

The robots will, if the mission proves successful, bring back information on the topography of the seafloor beneath the shelf, temperature, salinity, and water flow. This can be implemented into sea level rise prediction models and improve our understanding of the physics and interactions between ice and ocean. The relationships between ice and ocean we do know about, according to Christianson, are limited by the lack of physical measurements. "That's the key limitation," he said.

Paul G. Allen Philanthropies is partnering with the University of Washington to observe conditions beneath the underwater caves formed by Antarctica’s ice shelves. In this photo, the team is testing an autonomous drone, called the Seaglider, in the Puget Sound, Washington. University of Washington

If the year-long venture for the robots isn't enough of a challenge, the researchers themselves have also faced difficulties getting to the icy continent. Jason Gobat, the lead technologist for the robots from University of Washington, and Pierre Dutrieux, polar oceanographer of Columbia University, are aboard the Korean Polar Research Institute's icebreaker to launch the bots, which left New Zealand on December 21.

"Because it's so remote and so difficult to get to, you take whatever ride is available," Gobat told Newsweek. "The ship is absolutely jam-packed with scientists and their equipment because everybody is trying to get into this incredibly difficult and harsh place." Gobat and Dutrieux spent some two weeks on the ship—when a crew member on the vessel had a medical emergency and they had to turn back for New Zealand. The back-and-forth added several days, if not more, to their expedition. Crossing the southern ocean and traversing the ice can also sometimes cause delays, when the ice is too thick to be easily broken through.

But this expensive risk, according to Christianson, has allowed the team to "push the technology much further ahead, much more quickly than any other mechanism would have allowed us." As coastal cities prepare for sea level rise in the coming decades, the risk seems a jusitifed one to take.