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Antarctic Robot Goes Where Others Don't Dare

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Just how bad is the melting ice situation in Antarctica? A high-tech robot built by the University of British Columbia now navigating the frigid ocean around the continent should be able to tell us. Meet Gavia, a golden bullet-shaped autonomous underwater vehicle.

Scientists have long struggled to get basic information from the ice-covered water in the area, especially below a 330-foot thick slab of ice called the Erebus Glacier Tongue. Laurence Padman, an oceanographer with the Seattle-based nonprofit Earth and Space Research, even sought help from 57 elephant seals that another scientist had equipped with electronic sensors that sent info via satellite. Padman told the Toronto Star that accurate data is crucial for determining just how much warm water is getting to the ice shelf.

The University of British Columbia's Gavia robot, which measures approximately eight by two feet, is ready to capture all kinds of data with mapping sonar, a digital camera, current meters, and sensors to read temperature, salinity, and water quality. This month, two PhD candidates from the university's Autonomous Underwater Vehicle and Fluid Mechanics research group traveled to Antarctica to set the course and operate the bot. Their work is part of a large research project led by scientist Craig Stevens from the New Zealand National Institute for Water and Atmospheric Research to study the ocean's effects on ice.

Gavia can be programmed to go look for certain types of information as soon as it's dropped into the water. Andrew Hamilton, one of the PhD students traveling to Antarctica, told the university that data Gavia collects will provide valuable information from uncharted parts of the ocean to climate modelers. The robot is expected to do its icy solo work through November 12.

In another 90 years, scientists say that more than a third of the sea ice around the planet's southern continent will be completely gone. That would be seriously bad. But those are merely predictions based on incomplete data. With help from the brave Gavia bot, perhaps we'll finally have something more concrete to tell us just how high and how quickly the oceans will rise. Seems easier than enlisting seals.

Fuente: DiscoveryNews