Robots in Antarctica – RTD Activity Idea #3

This past weekend, something “cool” happened in the COOLroom. That’s cool as in cold. Antarctica cold! So I thought I’d share this quick activity with you all, in case you would like to incorporate some “really cool” real-time data from 65 degrees South latitude into your lessons on climate (and climate change), icebergs, biomes, marine biology or even the seasons (it’s summer down there right now). Then again, you really don’t need an excuse to tell this story. A little bit of oceanographic history is being made right now, and you and your students can follow along!

Scientists here at Rutgers are trying to stretch the limits that ocean technologies can go, in an effort to observe and monitor the ocean as never before. One of their most innovative gadgets is a remotely-controlled underwater robotic glider, which can swim up-and-down through the top 300 feet of the ocean for over a month at a time, all on its own. On each dive, it collects data on temperature, salinity, chlorophyll and more while it “glides” through the ocean. Every few hours, the glider surfaces, sticks it’s tail fin above the water, and makes a satellite phone call back to the COOLroom in New Jersey. During the call, the glider can receive new instructions from mission controllers, or if it doesn’t get any new directions, it will continue on its existing mission. It then transmits its recently collected instrument data back to the lab, where computer scripts process the data and make it available to the world.

A Rutgers glider off the coast of the Antarctic Peninsula

A Rutgers glider off the coast of the Antarctic Peninsula

Rutgers now has a fleet of over a dozen gliders and they have been flown in places like Hawaii, California, the Mediterranean, Liverpool, Florida, and extensively off the coast of New Jersey. In fact, this past summer we had a team of 6 gliders simultaneously patrolling the Mid-Atlantic continental shelf as part of a large research experiment.

But there’s a lot more ocean out there to study. And this week, a glider was deployed off the coast of Antarctica, in an environment like none other we’ve flown in before.

Antarctica is a cold, stormy and harsh environment to work in, and that’s on a nice day in the summer. It’s also one of the last pristine areas on the planet, with very little human impact, but it is also viewed as one of the first places where changes in climate will, and in fact are, being seen. So scientists are trying to study the area as much as they can in order to see what changes are already occurring. It is not cheap to do research there and so new ways to efficiently monitor the the ocean and environment are needed. Robotic underwater gliders present a viable option, and this month’s glider demonstration hopes to show that they are up to the task.

A) Real-time Data Project

Real-time underwater data from our glider in Antarctica can be found found on the following page.

If all goes well, we hope to have a glider in the water collecting data for the rest of the month of January. If something goes wrong, that’s okay to, because the purpose of this mission is to test the glider’s capabilities in the harsh environment of the Southern Ocean. And since we’ve already collected at least a few days of data for scientists to work with, this mission of exploration is already a success.

Some notes on the data: You can select different “transects” (broken-up segments of data) using the pull-down bar. The most interesting plots for students are probably 1) temperature, 2) salinity, 3) density, 4) chlorophyll and 5) the transect map. Note that the profile plots of data correspond to slices of the ocean underneath the line shown on the transect map starting from the green circle and heading towards the red circle.

If you like to use Google Earth, we also have a kml file which includes the glider’s path, current location, and way-point. By refreshing the link every few hours, you can update the latest position information. (You may need to save the file to your desktop first.)

I’ve also posted some additional pictures from the deployment. They’re very cool.

While planning for this mission, engineers were quite concerned about how sea ice and icebergs, which are typically prevalent in the area, might affect the glider by keeping it from reaching the surface, or in the worst case scenario, sink it. Imagine their surprise when they reached the station to find very little ice in the area! (You can compare the images taken during the deployment above with other images of Palmer Station in the summer found on the web to see a difference.)

B) Engaging Questions

Here are a few questions students can think about before they start their research. Wikipedia is a great place to find, somewhat reputable, background information.

  • Why are Antarctica and the Southern Ocean important places for scientists to study?
  • How will climate change affect Antarctica?
  • Who were some of the first Antarctic explorers?
  • How do scientists get to and live in Antarctica? What kinds of research do they do?

C) Suggested Research Questions

  • Compare the chlorophyll plots with those of temperature and salinity. Do you see any relationships between them?
  • At what depths are the maximum chlorophyll values in the profiles observed? What factors might explain this position?
  • How far away is the glider from your current position? (You can use the measure tool in Google Earth.)
  • Analyze the temperature plots, and convert the temperature scale to Fahrenheit if necessary. What is the difference in temperature and salinity from the water’s surface, to the bottom of the measured profile? Is this a large difference? What impact do temperature and salinity have on density?
  • Do you notice any temperature values that you don’t expect (i.e. negative values)? How is this possible?

D) Relevant References

Here are a bunch of recent articles and other resources about the glider deployment in Antarctica.

Well, there you have it. Cool science, in a cool place from a cool room. If your classes have any questions on this experiment, I’d be happy to try and answer them.

(Originally written January 10th, 2007)

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