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Robots under ice: Q&A from Antarctica

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Dr Damien Guihen in Antarctica

Dr Damien Guihen is sending robots under ice during a seven-week mission in Antarctica. When his satellite connection permitted, he answered some of our questions about science — and life — on the world's coldest continent.

What are you doing in the Antarctic?

In a nutshell, I am working in an icy sea alongside a fantastic team and putting robots under ice to understand the way ice melts and freezes.

I’m a part of the Tasmania-based Antarctic Gateway Partnership, which has links to other projects around the world. One of these links is with a project called LIONESS (Land-Ice/Ocean Network Exploration with Semiautonomous Systems), an international collaboration hosted by the Korea Polar Research Institute.

I am here to work with UBC Gavia, which is an Autonomous Underwater Vehicle (AUV) based at AMC, as well as an ocean glider owned by the University of California, Davis.

We are working in the Ross Sea in the New Zealand sector of Antarctica. It’s famous for its polynya, which is a large area of open water. Sea ice forms in these waters and is pushed away by the strong winds that come off the glaciers.

We are working in this polynya to understand how the water moves around a particular bay and how the shape of the seabed and the ice might affect this flow. We’re using Gavia to travel below enormous floating bodies of ice, called Ice Sheets, to make measurements of their shape. This can help us to learn more about how the ocean and the ice interact.

As a reminder of how well-placed Tasmania is for Antarctic work (and how large Australia is), despite being 1000 km inside the Antarctic circle, I am about as far from Tasmania as Tasmania is from Darwin.

Dr Damien Guihen with an ocean glider owned by the University of California, Davis.

Dr Damien Guihen with a glider owned by the University of California, Davis. Image: Cassie Bongiovanni

Who are you with?

I am on the RV Araon, owned by the Korea Polar Research Institute. There are many others onboard and a number of overlapping experiments and observations being taken.

Some of the institutes represented include UC Davis, University of Columbia, University of Delaware, University of New Hampshire, New Zealand Institute for Water and Atmosphere, US National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration and the Alfred Wegener Institute.

Our international group has been kindly kitted out by Antarctica New Zealand, so we are in matching orange and black on deck. We generally help each other out when working on the deck, which is a great way to learn about other projects.

How long are you spending at sea?

We joined the ship on the 19th of January, departed Christchurch on the 20th and arrived at Jang Bogo research station in Terra Nova Bay, Ross Sea, about a week later. We will get back to Christchurch about 6 weeks later, in early March.

What are the conditions like?

The RV Araon is an excellent ship and very well suited to the harsh conditions of the Ross Sea. I have been working quite a bit in a small boat away from the ship, and that can get quite cold and bumpy, but the scenery is spectacular, and we're quickly warm when back on the ship. We have had some heavy winds and waves, particularly on the voyage south, but you get used to it.

Being a Korean research vessel, meals are exotic to many of us on board but have been delicious. Saturday night Korean-style barbecue is a particular favourite of the team. 

This is not my first time in the Antarctic, but I never get bored of watching sea ice form from drifting patches of 'grease ice' or looking at icebergs, snow petrels or the hope of seeing some whales.

Why is Gavia good for this kind of work?

Gavia is a very flexible platform, meaning that we can add new modules to bring additional capabilities to the vehicle. We can't use GPS underwater, so AMC has added an Inertial Navigation System, which allows us to track the movement underwater much more reliably.

We also have instruments attached to Gavia to make measurements of water movement, and the temperature and salinity of the water as it passes through.

What will you do once you get back to AMC?

One of the main tasks will be processing of data and publication of the results that we’ve found. We’ve already seen some interesting phenomena under the ice, and some more Gavia missions this week will add more detail. Beyond that, we will be working to strengthen partnerships between the groups by looking at the potential to work together on other related projects.

What do you like about working with AUVs?

We can gain new perspectives on the world by using advanced platforms like AUVs. The ability to send a vehicle under a sheet of ice that is 150 metres deep underwater means that we can make maps of places people have never been. That's a special feeling.

What are you looking forward to upon your return to Tasmania?

Cheese.

Published on: 17 Feb 2017