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Robots Trace The Cause of Antarctica's Melt

Nov 10, 2014 03:36 PM EST

The Southern Ocean off Antarctica is one of the most remote and difficult-to-access portions of the world, making tracking the extent and causes of the White Continent's melt difficult to both understand and measure. Now researchers have used a team of submersible robots to physically follow how warm water is making its way to the Antarctic ice sheets, causing them to melt.

The resulting findings were recently published in a study in the journal Nature Geoscience and will hopefully help experts better understand how climate change is affecting the mysterious southern-most pole and its important continental shelf.

"Physical processes in this area of the Antarctic are important for global climate and chemical cycles. But steep terrain and complex interactions between the atmosphere, sea ice, and water combine to make this particularly challenging for climate models, as well as for making observations," researcher Karen Heywood, at the University of East Anglia's Centre for Ocean and Atmospheric Sciences, explained in a statement.

Most of our understanding of how climate change is affecting Antarctica is measured by orbital satellites and fly-by observations from planes. However, these measurements understandably cannot track and assess the natural eddies of swirling water that send warm water towards the White's Continent.

To fill that data gap, Heywood and her colleagues deployed three robotic underwater gliders that were remotely controlled from Norwich, more than 10,000 miles away.

"Our robots help us to build up a picture of underwater conditions by collecting data on water salinity, temperature, and oxygen levels. The results have identified ocean features that could not feasibly have been studied by any other means," Heywood said.

According to the study, these robots identified the exact eddy currents and patterns by which warmer water is taking to reach Antarctica's vulnerable ice. Unfortunately, as this is the first time these eddies have been located and observed in such detail, the researchers have little to compare their data to. However, it does set a precedent for future studies.

"This is just the start of understanding polar processes," Heywood added, "but we hope it will help refine ocean and climate models, and predict future rates of retreat for Antarctic ice shelves."

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