Today, the failures of representative democracy in the West are well known, but just 12 months ago it was widely felt that the Athenian ideals of Cleisthenes still held some merit. That naivety explains why, when announcing its new £200 million polar research vessel, the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC) asked the public to #NameOurShip. A throwaway quip from BBC presenter James Hand snowballed and before too long ‘Boaty McBoatface’ had won the poll. The survey was non-binding and, unlike the British government, NERC exercised its right to shun the will of the people, instead choosing the runner-up, RRS Sir David Attenborough.
Boaty McBoatface lives on, however, as the name of a class of long range autonomous vehicles that will conduct their research under the waves. The Sir David will carry one when it goes into service in 2019, but Boaty McBoatface goes on its very first mission today, heading out of Punta Arenas, Chile on RRS Sir David Attenborough’s predecessor, the RRS James Clark Ross, before being dropped into a 3,500 metre gap in an underwater ridge, called the Orkney Passage.
Ahead of this first mission, Avaunt got in touch with Professor Michael Meredith of the British Antarctic Survey (BAS), one of the principal investigator of the ongoing Dynamics of the Orkney Passage Outflow (DynOPO) project, to find out how Boaty will assist in the vital investigation of the flow of Antarctic Bottom Water (AABW) through the underwater valley that connects the Atlantic Ocean to the Weddell Sea.
Professor Meredith explains that this “bottom water” is a very cold and dense form of water that forms in the shallow layers around Antarctica, sinking to the seabed before spreading out to fill the whole abyss of the global ocean. This water can take both heat and carbon from the atmosphere, and in so doing can moderate climate change on a planetary scale. The only problem is, this water itself has been warming up over recent decades.
“We don’t know why it’s getting warmer,” Professor Meredith admits, “and that’s actually very important, because unless we can figure out why it’s getting warmer, we won’t be able to make good predictions for the future of how that water is going to change, and hence how the climate is going to change.” A quarter of all AABW will, at some point, squeeze through the Orkney Passage, which is where Boaty’s mission comes into play.
“We need to know how warm the water is, how salty the water is, and we’ve put special sensors on the submarine for this particular expedition to tell us about how fast the water is mixing,” Professor Meredith says. “For us, that’s a really key thing, because that’s one of the fundamental controls that actually determines how the water circulates – how it changes over time and space in some key places, which gives us some really good insight into the climatic effects the water is having. The ability to send a submarine off and have it collect data from the deep ocean and otherwise inaccessible places really expands the scale of what we can do.”
Boaty will have to withstand depths of 4-5,000 metres, while remaining fully autonomous and collecting data for download after the submarine is recovered by the ship. “It’s something that’s been in development for a number of years and refined to a very high state of engineering evolution,” Professor Meredith explains. He adds that Boaty is battery powered and, once her mission parameters have been programmed, she can operate for several weeks in purely autonomous mode, navigating the harsh seabed to evade any topographical hazards that could potentially pierce its rugged exterior.
That doesn’t mean that there aren’t risks, and Professor Meredith assures us that there are “quite well-established procedures” and “an awful lot of checks done in advance”, both on the deck of the RRS James Clark Ross and when the submarine enters the Southern Ocean. Existing maps of the seabed are consulted closely for the topographical lumps and bumps to aid the positioning of the mothership in the appropriate position, and these maps will only be improved for future mission through Boaty’s efforts.
When DynOPO’s funding period ends in November 2018, Professor Meredith still hopes to use Boaty in future BAS missions, should she get time off from a planned 2,500 km expedition to travel under the sea ice of the Arctic, from one side of the ocean basin to another. Boaty will continue to change and improve as she takes on new projects, being kitted out with new sensors to further expand her capabilities as she continues to work in a sea of green, beneath the waves.