At about 1:00 p.m. today, Dr. Josh Kohut was in an inflatable boat over an underwater canyon called the Palmer Deep. The wind was light, there was a little rain, and groups of gentoo penguins were swimming by the boat to see what we were up to. We were there to deploy four gliders—or, as Dr. Kohut put it with mild amazement, “Here we are in Antarctica, sitting in a zodiac and getting ready to throw some robots in the water.”
The team’s gliders are indeed torpedo-shaped robots that will “fly” through the water measuring basic aspects such as salinity, currents, and photosynthetic activity. They’ll stay out for weeks at a time, and they’ll check in every few hours to report what they’ve found and listen for further instructions. The CONVERGE team is using them to gather data about what’s going on under the surface, much as they’re using radar to study the surface water and find convergence zones.
“We think convergence zones are concentrating the food web [phytoplankton and krill],” said Dr. Matt Oliver of the University of Delaware. “So these gliders are going to go fly through those zones and find out if that’s true.” In scientific terms, the effect of convergence zones is one of the team’s hypotheses, and the gliders provide them with a way to do what scientists do: test their hypotheses.
Gliders are delicate, heavy, complicated machines—see what it takes to safely launch a glider in the slideshow below:
All the time we were driving the zodiacs back to Palmer, the gliders were heading out along their programmed routes. By late evening, RU05 had split away from the others to follow its own route. The Alaska glider (AK03) and the University of Delaware’s Blue Hen were neck and neck, but Filipa Carvalho’s RU24 was out in front, owing to a slight difference in the way it was configured during testing.
The gliders will keep sending back data every few hours, and the CONVERGE team will get together each day to look at the results and decide on their next course of action. This almost instantaneous collection of data over such a wide area is something that has only become possible in the last 10 or 15 years. Check back over the next days and weeks to see how the team puts this potential to use.