Magazine article Oceanus

Unique Vehicles for a Unique Environment: New Autonomous Robots Will Pierce an Ice-Covered Ocean and Explore the Arctic Abyss

Magazine article Oceanus

Unique Vehicles for a Unique Environment: New Autonomous Robots Will Pierce an Ice-Covered Ocean and Explore the Arctic Abyss

Article excerpt

Imagine you have inherited a magnificent medieval castle. You wander its corridors, climbing spiral staircases to hidden towers, delving purposefully into subterranean caverns, and delighting in the details of its architecture, history, and artistic treasures. Over time yon come to realize there is a great North Wing that has long been sealed off from the rest of the castle.

You've found old documents in the library describing construction of the North Wing, and it appears as though it was built using rare materials that are not found anywhere else in the castle. As best as you can tell the castle's main thermostat is inside the North Wing, which adds some urgency because lately the castle seems to be getting inexplicably warmer. And, perhaps most intriguing, recent evidence suggests that something--perhaps even something unusual--might actually be living in there.

Even so, it might be more accurate to confess that you've just got to gain entrance to the North Wing--because not being able to enter rooms in your own house is unbearable.

Puma and Jaguar are autonomous underwater vehicles (AUVs) designed to overcome the technical challenges that now preclude under-ice operations in the Arctic Ocean. They will home in to an acoustic beacon and latch onto a wire suspended from a hole in the ice. Puma has sonars and sensors to search wide areas and detect temperature, chemical, or turbidity signals from hydrothermal vent plumes (the green lasers detect particulates in the water). Puma can track the plume back to its seafloor source, where Jaguar then will be deployed to hover with camera and lighting systems, high-resolution sonar, and a manipulator arm for close-up imaging, mapping, and sampling.

Finding a way in

You come to realize, however, that you're not the first to try. Numerous intrepid individuals have dedicated themselves to the pursuit over the years, their stories comprising a veritable tome of frustration and failure. And why? Because the North Wing is hidden under a moat of water more than two miles deep, which, in turn, is covered by a permanent layer of ice.

Moreover, it is so far north that the compasses and gyroscopes typically used for navigation are essentially useless. The tools required to get through ice and into the abyss to explore the North Wing cannot be bought at any price. You will have to make them yourself.

You have probably guessed by now that the castle in this mental exercise is Earth, and the North Wing is the vast, ice-covered Arctic Ocean Basin. If the old adage is true that we know more about the surface of our neighboring planets than we do about Earth's ocean basins (and it is), then nowhere is it more true than the Arctic Basin.

A blank spot on the map of Earth

Deep-sea research is hard enough as it is. But cover the ocean you're trying to explore with a permanent ice cap, limit your available field season to a few months that are not too cold and dark, and factor in a generally inaccessible location at the very top of the world, and you can begin to appreciate why we know so little about the Arctic Basin.

In fact, were it not for a few Russian and American scientists whiling the months away in camps on drifting ice floes, we would know almost nothing at all about the Earth's great North Wing. (Actually, U.S. and Soviet navies also gathered data about the Arctic during the heyday of Cold War submarine warfare, but this information is generally classified.)

The human spirit cannot abide a puzzle with a missing piece. But this is especially so when the missing piece could fill in crucial details about the origin of Earth's oceans, the evolution of life, and our planet's susceptibility to climate change.

An unexplored frontier

For climatologists and physical oceanographers, it is often said that the Arctic is a canary in the environmental coal mine. In a warming world, the Arctic's delicately balanced ocean circulation and sea ice appears vulnerable to disruptions that could have dramatic impacts on Earth's oceans and climate. …

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