Mini-submarines may soon be roaming under Antarctica's ice shelves to unlock global-warming secrets from one of the least explored places on Earth. New Zealand's involvement in several international projects using autonomous underwater vehicles (AUVs) was discussed at the first joint Antarctica New Zealand and Australian Antarctic Division conference in Hobart.
One project has Kiwi scientists collaborating with a United States-led project to explore under the Ross ice shelf in New Zealand's Antarctic claim territory. American-based scientist Professor Ross Powell, originally from New Zealand, had designed and built an AUV for the project.
The next step was developing a drill that could bore a massive hole through 600 to 800 metres of ice so that the AUV could be lowered into the sea beneath the ice shelf, an area the size of France. Victoria University's Antarctic Research Centre director, Professor Tim Naish, said the ice shelf's surface was well explored but the ocean underneath it was almost unknown.
Understanding what was happening under the ice shelf was vital because of its role in controlling the world's climate and to help to predict how melting ice sheets would contribute to sea level rise. "We know as the ocean warms under the ice shelf, this is one of the most important things that can cause them to destabilise," Naish said. "It's the thing we are most concerned about."
Australian oceanographer Dr Steve Rintoul has sought New Zealand scientists' involvement in an Australian-British project that hoped to deploy AUVs that could survive for up to a year under the ice shelf. "The area underneath the floating ice shelf is arguably the poorest observed part of the entire Earth. It's a complete blind spot."
"We know the oceans as a whole are warming but because we don't have measurements under the ice, we don't know how much heat is reaching the ice."