February 18, 2023

It is appropriate since I mentioned the Doomsday Clock several days ago that the back section of my local newspaper carried an article about the ice melt of the Doomsday Glacier.  Two studies in the journal “Nature” were from scientists from the UK-US International Thwaites Glacier Collaboration (ITGC) who were able to measure the bottom of the Thwaites Glacier by inserting cameras and probes through a borehole to study the ice from underwater.  The images showed that while the glacier is melting slower than projected, the warmer water underneath the ice is creating cracks and crevasses where the ice melts faster than the rest of the glacier.  One group made observations of the grounding line (where the ice first meets the ocean).  Over nine months the ocean became warmer and saltier, but the melt rate only averaged 6.5 to 16.25 feet (2 to 5 m) per year or less than had been modeled.  Oceanographers with the British Antarctic Survey took measurements through a 164 foot (600 m) deep borehole created by a hot water drill in late 2019 that is around 6562 feet (2 km) from the grounding line.  These measurements were compared with melt rate observations taken at five other sites underneath the ice shelf.  All these measurements were taken by a robot called Icefin.

When I looked online, I found Icefin is an 11 foot (3.35 m) tube-like underwater robot used to provide pertinent details regarding the conditions beneath the freezing waters.  Icefin was developed at Georgia Tech and the prototype dates to 2014, but now Icefin has a home at Cornell University. The robot is capable of characterizing below-ice environments using a suite of sensors.  Icefin is equipped with HD cameras, laser ranging systems, sonar, doppler current profilers, single beam altimeters (to measure distance), and instruments for measuring salinity, temperature, dissolved oxygen, pH, and organic matter.  The torpedo like craft can dive to depths of 3,280 feet (1,000 m) and squeeze through narrow cavities in the ice shelf.   The robot is modular and can be broken down, customized, and reassembled according to the needs of the mission.  Researchers can remotely control Icefin’s trajectory, or let it set off on its own. 

Icefin isn’t alone in the cold Antarctic waters.  It is part of ITGC’s fleet that includes other radars, sensors, and vehicles like Boaty McBoatface.  Boaty McBoatface (also known as Boaty) is the British lead boat in a fleet of three robotic autonomous underwater vehicles (AUVs).  Boaty was launched in 2017 and is carried on board the polar research vessel RRS Sir David Attenborough, and is a focal point of the Polar Explorer Program of the UK Government.  The name Boaty McBoatface was originally proposed in a March 2016 #NameOurShip online poll to name the £200 million polar scientific research ship.  James Hand of BBC Radio coined the humorous suggestion for the poll, and the name quickly became the most popular with 124,109 votes.  Although Boaty McBoatface was the popular suggestion with more than ten times the votes for Sir David Attenborough, the suggestion to use the name for the mothership was not followed.  The name was said to be an homage to Hooty McOwlface, an owl named through an “Adopt-a-Bird” event in 2012 that became popular on the Internet.  Who ever thought science is not fun.

THOUGHTS:  In 2020, Icefin ventured out to the critical point where the Thwaites Glacier joins the Amundsen Sea, and the ice starts to float.  The data gathered showed the glacier had retreated up the ocean floor, thinning at the base, and melting outwards quickly.  The Thwaites Glacier is roughly the size of Florida and is nicknamed the Doomsday Glacier as over the last 30 years it accounts for 4% of global sea level rise.  If the glacier collapses it could add 25 inches to sea level rise in the coming centuries.  While this information will improve model predictions, a collapse would inundate our global coastal cities.  Act for all.  Change is coming and it starts with you.

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