Underwater robots explore icy waters

UCT scientists Dr Marcel du Plessis and Isabelle Giddy in Davos. Picture: Emma Bone

Two UCT scientists are part of an international study using underwater robots to learn more about the ice-covered waters of Antarctica.

Dr Marcel du Plessis and Isabelle Giddy are part of ROAM-MIZ (Robotic Observations and Modelling of the Marginal Ice Zone), a project co-led by associate professor Sebastiaan Swart, from the University of Gothenburg, and Dr Sarah Nicholson, of the Southern Ocean Carbon and Climate Observatory (SOCCO), which is supported by the South African National Antarctic Programme.

Dr Swart, a UCT graduate, and Dr Nicholson developed the project, which started in the middle of December last year and will continue until February 2020.

According to Dr Du Plessis, the project uses underwater robots, called gliders, to sample the seasonal ice zone over a
year and measure what is happening where the air meets the sea during times of the year when the ice is growing and melting.

Ms Giddy said they were also interested in the variability in the upper ocean – something influenced by the atmosphere through storms and heating from the sun.

The gliders give the researchers regular updates on what is happening in the ocean.

The data inform researchers from the UCT Department of Oceanography, as well as their international partners, how the ocean will react to and influence a changing climate.

The gliders are designed to be small, about 1.5m long, and they run off a battery. Deployed from the polar research vessel, SA Agulhas II, they can sample the ocean for many months without human intervention.

Researchers can do real-time preliminary analysis of the collected data which is also available to the public at www.roammiz.com

“The high-quality glider data will be used to analyse the model simulations. These results will improve our understanding of how computer models represent the air-sea-ice processes which are instrumental to the functioning of the earth system,” Dr Du Plessis said.