What a surfboard is teaching scientists about melting Antarctic ice

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Surf Board

The southern ocean, comprised of the waters surrounding Antarctica, could hold the key to understanding how carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions contribute to warming waters. 

The ocean is currently experiencing monumental changes in temperature and circulation, which affect the way sea ice melts.

According to Jim Thomson, professor of environmental engineering, the role of the southern ocean in global assessments of climate change, should not be overlooked.

“We think the southern ocean is a significant regulator of the climate system,'' Thomson said in an email. “[It] link[s] the Antarctic sea ice to the rest of the global climate.”

The UW Applied Physics Lab (APL) plans to send a data collection device, called the Wave Glider, into this crucial environment to gather data on interactions between surface and subsurface waters affect ocean warming. 

“We are studying how the warmer waters mix with colder waters below,” Thompson, who is the principal investigator on the project, said. “To do this, we have added instruments to measure temperature, salinity, and turbulence at different depths.” 

The Wave Glider, designed by Liquid Robotics, is in and of itself simply a propulsion device. However, the APL lab has outfitted its particular model with several sensors. 

This includes a device which floats below the board and collects data on conductivity, or the ability of the water to conduct electricity. The device allows researchers to better understand the capacity of the water to absorb CO2, thought to be one of the major reasons for the rise in ocean temperatures. 

The small size and low energy usage of the device make it a cheap and powerful alternative to the usual methods of ocean measurement, which often require large ships and complex data collection materials.  

The device, which relies on wave motion and solar power for navigation and propulsion, resembles a surfboard and is designed to be able to withstand the notoriously violent waters surrounding the Antarctic. 

The current Wave Glider will be released in November 2019 from Palmer station, the northernmost U.S. research station on the planet and collected in February 2020 in Argentina.

During that time, the vessel will charter a course once more through the Drake Passage, in the Pacific Ocean, collecting data that is relayed back to the station on an hourly basis. 

The main constraints of the project come from the unpredictable weather characteristic of the Drake Passage. 

“Damage is much more likely from big waves,” Thompson said, when compared to other forms of interference, such as from animal life near the surface.

Researchers are already able to predict the likely outcome of this round of data collection based on overwhelming evidence from previous studies.

“Ocean temperatures are increasing, and this is melting sea ice,” Thomson said of the lab’s preliminary findings.

Melting sea ice has global consequences which are not limited to Antarctic regions. During the winter, when larger areas of the sea freeze over, the white ice covering the southern tip of the globe reflects the sun's heat back into our atmosphere, thus helping to cool the planet. 

However, with increased melting, the ice area shrinks and is replaced with dark ocean waters, which absorb heat. This sets in motion a positive feedback loop known as the ice-albedo loop, which, according to studies done by the NASA Earth Observatory, can contribute to rising global temperatures. 

Monitoring the ocean surrounding these critical areas, as the APL is doing with the Wave Glider, can help scientists understand and slow the cycle of global warming.

Reach contributing writer Sidney Spencer-Mylet at science@dailyuw.com. Twitter: @thisissidneyyy

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