Thinking Tech

The unmanned submarine that will survey Antarctica--from below

The unmanned submarine that will survey Antarctica--from below

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The Sub-Ice Rover will provide a literal new perspective on climate change, from beneath a half-mile of Antarctic ice.

The slow melting of arctic and antarctic ice may provide easy visual aides for explaining climate change, but make no mistake: collecting data from these harsh and expansive environments is hairy.

In particular, judging the rate at which Antarctic glaciers melt--and then correlating those observations with climate data--is exceptionally difficult, and produces results that can be difficult to interpret. Most recently, NASA had to weigh in on misguided conclusions based on data collected from Antarctic ice surfaces with a firmly worded rebuttal to climate change skeptics:

[T]hese data points are misleading. Gravity data collected from space using NASA's Grace satellite show that Antarctica has been losing more than a hundred cubic kilometers (24 cubic miles) of ice each year since 2002. The latest data reveal that Antarctica is losing ice at an accelerating rate, too.

The problem boils down to this: currently, this is no precise and complete way to measure how quickly, and to what degree, the ice that covers and surrounds this 5.4 million square mile landmass is melting into the ocean. Direct and accurate measurements from the ice surface, while useful, can't provide a macro-level perspective on something as large as an ice shelf, or a glacier. Satellite imagery and gravity readings excel at broader measurements, but lack precision.

The ideal solution is to get underneath the ice and observe it from below; a melting ice shelf will lose a good deal of its mass at the point where it meets the water.  One problem! Antarctic ice is thick. Thousands of feet thick.

That's where the Sub-Ice Rover (SIR), designed by DOER-Marine, comes in.

This unmanned submarine cuts an odd profile, measuring in at about 28 feet in length and just 22 inches wide. Its long body provides space for instruments and electronics, while its modest girth is necessary for diving through narrow boreholes cut through thick ice. (The rendering seen above does not include the craft's protective fiberglass skin.)

Its cargo manifest, according to Discovery News:

SIR's suite of science gear includes five cameras, a robot arm to gather samples and a host of other instruments and sensors to track currents, sample water, measure distances and map the seafloor.

While gathering data to help form a more complete understanding to climate change will be the SIR's first priority, it's also equipped to do a bit of scouting for new forms of life. Despite the inhospitable conditions and utter lack of light under Antarctic's largest ice shelf--and the SIR's first destination, pending successful tests at Lake Tahoe--scientists expect to find new microbes during the sub's excursions.

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John Herrman

Contributing Editor

Contributing Editor John Herrman is a freelance writer based in New York City. He is also contributing editor at Gizmodo. He holds a degree from the University of Edinburgh. Follow him on Twitter. Disclosure