Boaty McBoatface Mission Sheds Light on Warming Antarctic Abyss

The unmanned long-range submarine research vehicle Boaty McBoatface onboard the RSS James Clark Ross for the DynOPO mission in the Southern Ocean. (National Oceanography Centre/Natural Environment Research Council)

(CN) – Despite sounding like a joke, the unmanned long-range submarine vehicle Boaty McBoatface is helping scientists conduct serious research on rising sea levels brought on by climate change.

Researchers from University of Southampton, the National Oceanography Centre, the British Antarctic Survey, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution and Princeton University launched a joint mission in April 2017 that sent Boaty to the bottom of the Southern Ocean.

Boaty’s first mission is also the first study to shed light on a key process linking increasing Antarctic winds to rising sea temperatures. Data collected from the expedition will help climate scientists build more accurate predictions of the effects of climate change on rising sea levels.

“Our study is an important step in understanding how the climate change happening in the remote and inhospitable Antarctic waters will impact the warming of the oceans as a whole and future sea level rise,” said lead author Alberto Naveira Garabato, a professor from the University of Southampton, in a statement.

Boaty travelled a little over 100 miles through mountainous underwater valleys measuring the temperature, salinity and turbulence of the water at the bottom of the ocean over three days. Using an echo sounder to navigate, Boaty reached depths of 13,000 feet to take measurements that were then downloaded by its human project team once it met them at the programmed rendezvous location.

In recent decades a hole in the ozone layer above Antarctica and increasing greenhouse gases have caused stronger winds over the Southern Ocean. The data from Boaty, combined with other ocean measurements collected from research vessel RRS James Clark Ross, reveal a mechanism that enables these winds to increase turbulence deep in the Southern Ocean, causing warm water at mid depths to mix with cold, dense water in the abyss.

The resulting warming of the water on the sea bed is a significant contributor to rising sea levels. The turbulence increasing mechanism is not built into current models for predicting the impact of increasing global temperatures on our oceans.

“The data from Boaty McBoatface gave us a completely new way of looking at the deep ocean – the path taken by Boaty created a spatial view of the turbulence near the seafloor, ” according to Dr. Eleanor Frajka-Williams of the National Oceanography Centre.

The moniker Boaty McBoatface was submitted as a joke, according to BBC radio host James Hand. Hand suggested the name when the British scientific research agency Natural Environment Research Council launched an online poll in March 2016 to allow the public to name, at the time, its newly commissioned, largest and most advanced British royal polar research vessel.

While Hand’s suggestion garnered the most votes, the NERC overruled the public and named the vessel, currently under construction, RRS Sir David Attenborough. As a consolation the organization named the lead boat of the AutoSub Long Range-class of autonomous underwater vehicles Boaty McBoatface. The sub will be carried on the RSS Sir David Attenborough when the ship is completed.

“This study is a great example of how exciting new technology such as the unmanned submarine Boaty McBoatface can be used along with ship-based measurements and cutting-edge ocean models to discover and explain previously unknown processes affecting heat transport within the ocean,” Dr. Povl Abrahamsen of the British Antarctic Survey said in a statement.

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