October 1, 2009

Robotic sub to explore Antarctic ice

U.S. scientists say a 24-foot-long robotic submarine will be used in a multimillion-dollar, five-year study of melting on the West Antarctic Ice Sheet.

Northern Illinois University said its robotic submarine will be lowered through more than a half mile of ice into ocean water in the study that involves nine U.S. institutions.

Researchers said the submarine will collapse to a width of only two feet, allowing it to be lowered through a drill hole melted in the ice. The sub is designed to allow observation, for the first time, of melting and other conditions at the interface between seawater and the base of the glacial ice.

The data are critical to scientists trying to project potential future rises in sea levels due to global warming, the researchers said, since substantial melting at the base of the ice shelf and ice sheet would lead to a more rapid sea-level rise.

We'll be investigating some of the last unexplored aquatic environments on the planet, said Professor Ross Powell, one of the project's lead scientists. One of our major objectives is to get to the bottom of the Ross Ice Shelf and West Antarctic Ice Sheet and see what's going on. We know the ice is melting there, but we don't know how fast.

NIU joins the University of California-Santa Cruz and Montana State University as lead institutions of the project.