An autonomous underwater vehicle (AUV), called SeaBed, used by British, American, and Australian scientists to scan Antarctic ice layers in the Weddell, Bellingshausen, and Wilkes areas of the Antarctic has transmitted data that suggested that the ice of the Antarctic is much thicker than previously thought. Having surveyed over 500,000 square meters of ice thickness for the past four years for marine and Antarctic researchers, scientists are now convinced that Antarctic ice is much thicker than previously known.

Reported in the journal Nature Geoscience, the researchers say “Our surveys indicate that the floes are much thicker and more deformed than reported by most drilling and ship-based measurements of Antarctic sea ice. Mean drafts range from 1.4 to 5.5 metres, with maxima up to 16 metres. We suggest that thick ice in the near-coastal and interior pack may be under-represented in existing in situ assessments of Antarctic sea ice and hence, on average, Antarctic sea ice may be thicker than previously thought.”

Built with the ability to conduct stable photographic work in underwater ice, the SeaBed runs on 1.2GHz Intel Pentium processor and uses Ubuntu Linux 8.04. the SeaBed AUV’s engineer, Hanumant Singh, an engineer at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI) says “Putting an AUV together to map the underside of sea ice is challenging from a software, navigation and acoustic communications standpoint.

“SeaBED’s maneuverability and stability made it ideal for this application where we were doing detailed floe-scale mapping and deploying, as well as recovering in close-packed ice conditions. It would have been tough to do many of the missions we did, especially under the conditions we encountered, with some of the larger vehicles.”

A co-author of the study, Jeremy Wilkinson of the British Antarctic Survey states that, “The AUV missions have given us a real insight into the nature of Antarctic sea ice – like looking through a microscope. We can now measure ice in far greater detail and were excited to measure ice up to 17 meters thick.”

Combined with satellite, radar, and onsite inspections, data from the SeaBed will be used to understand and analyze underwater and environmental activities in the Antarctic and frigid zones of the planet’s south. More so, data from the SeaBed AUV has been adopted in constructing complex 3D images of sea ice around the continent.

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