The famously named autonomous submarine Boaty McBoatface has returned safely following its most challenging task yet, diving under a 600-meter thick Antarctic ice shelf, and spending 48 hours collecting data away from its launch ship. The success will pave the way for even more audacious missions in the future, including under the sea-ice of the Arctic Ocean.
Speaking to BBC News, Professor Russell Wynn, the UK National Oceanography Center’s chief scientist for marine autonomous systems, said the recent mission was particularly challenging:
“The reason this mission under the Filchner Ice Shelf in the Antarctic is so significant is that it proves the concept of the new Boaty long-range vehicle being able to do this kind of work. Although this was only a 48-hour mission, it was very high risk because of the nature of the environment. I could very easily have been talking to you now having lost Boaty under the ice and having no way of getting it back.”
The vehicle has won widespread fame thanks to its name, which was chosen by the public in an online poll. The government decided the name was not appropriate for the UK’s next polar ship, the subject of the poll, which was ultimately dubbed the RRS Sir David Attenborough. However, they kept the name for the autonomous submarine, which will operate from ship’s deck.
Boaty McBoatface will be one of a fleet of autonomous vehicles, called Autosub Long Range (ALR), that NOC is building to navigate long distance missions, some of which will last weeks at a time.
The recent mission was part of the Filchner Ice Shelf (FIS) Project. The massive shelf is composed of ice that flowed off of the continent and into the sea. Boaty’s task was to provide data on the way water flows through the cavity beneath the shelf, observing temperature, salinity, and other factors. Such data will help scientists predict the impact if warm water were to begin melting the shelf, as it has in other parts of Antarctic.
Roughly one fifth of Antarctica’s land ice flows into the Weddell Sea via the Filchner shelf and the nearby Ronne shelf. The shelves help to slow the flow of ice basins into the ocean.
According to British Antarctic Survey oceanographer Dr. Peter Davis:
“The ice streams cover an area perhaps 10 times the size of the UK. So, the shelves hold back a huge amount of ice. And if they are unleashed, or released, they could result in some substantial sea-level rise that will impact everyone no matter where we are on the globe.”