University of Washington to deploy robotic sensors under Antarctic ice to find clues to future sea-level rise

30 December 2017

A University of Washington researcher will place a half-million dollars' worth of robotic sensors into the frigid waters off Antarctica and hope for the best.

If everything works to plan, the drones could collect some of the most extensive measurements ever from beneath the continent's vast and vulnerable Western ice shelf. If it does not work out, the bots could sink into the waters under the ice, never to be heard from again.

''The environment is just insanely harsh and remote,'' said oceanographer Craig Lee of the UW's Applied Physics Laboratory. ''This is very high risk.''

The exercise is aimed at getting answers to the biggest questions in climate science. How much and how quickly will sea level rise due to melting of Antarctic ice sheets? The expedition is being funded by Seattle billionaire Paul Allen, who has built a reputation for funding risky research with the potential for major impact.

With $1.8 million in funding from Paul G Allen Philanthropies the team will carry out field tests to check if the robots could navigate the treacherous interface where ice shelves and ocean meet, gather data, and transmit it back to Seattle.

''This will be a technological feat if we can pull it off,'' said Spencer Reeder, director of climate and energy for Allen Philanthropies. ''We're willing to shoulder that initial risk and if we can demonstrate it's possible, then others can follow suit,'' The News Tribune reported.

Lee says, "The contribution of the great ice sheets in the Antarctic and Greenland are the largest sources of uncertainty in our numerical predictions of what sea level rise might be, how it might respond to climate change," reported.

Team member, Knut Christianson said, "The environment is more dynamic than you might expect. It's not a smooth surface underneath the ice shelf. There are canyons that are tens of hundreds of metres high. There are basal crevasses. It's a treacherous environment to explore without knowing a lot about it."

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