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| On 23, Feb 2015

Sea ice is the sheet of ice that floats on top of the ocean near the poles. New technology is enabling us to send unmanned vehicles into the ocean’s depths to study the ice sheets. This piece has the details.

Delving into the dark side of Antarctic sea ice has revealed that it is thicker and more deformed than previously thought. An autonomous underwater vehicle was sent to explore Antarctic waters on the coastal regions of the Weddell Sea, the Bellingshausen Sea, and off Wilkes Land in Eastern Antarctica. It has returned data that shows that almost three-quarters of it is deformed, and the thickness is up to 16 meters.

So far, attempts to understand the nature and behaviour of Antarctic sea ice have involved drilling and visual inspections from ships. These approaches used to suggest that the waters surrounding Antarctica were covered by a relatively thin layer of ice. But now, since a vehicle was sent to the dark side of the ice sheets and was employed to send back 3-D images, our understanding of the thickness of the ice layers has changed. Now it seems as though the sheets are much thicker than we originally thought, and also that they’re much more irregular in shape.

Such measurements are important because they allow us to understand climate change better. It will equip us with knowledge of how climate change will impact ocean environment, and how the behaviour of Antarctic sea ice – which is the main source of ‘Antarctic Bottom Water’, the main component of deep ocean all around the world – will change with climate.
The next step in this research is to design smaller, more portable, lighter, and more agile autonomous vehicles that can cover larger distances away from the ship. They’re also looking at using unmanned aerial platforms that skirt the top surface of the ice layers so that we can get information about both surfaces at the same time.

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