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Robots On Ice Probe the Arctic

Why a team of research robots is investigating disappearing sea ice, and why you should care

Illustration by Tyler Hoehne

Deep in the frozen realm of the Arctic, scientists are deploying robots, built to operate autonomously and remotely, to complete a cold, lonely recon mission. These bots will gather information on the area’s sea ice, whirring and clicking far away from anyone who could possibly observe their careful work. Specially designed to withstand the extreme conditions of the region, the machines, which dive, swim, hover, and glide, will monitor the fragile marginal ice zone (MIZ) of the Beaufort Sea. By assessing local environmental changes, scientists are able to track both rising sea levels and the subsequent loss of ice, hoping to keep up with the alarming, rapidly shifting climate conditions of the Arctic, which has been warming at nearly twice the rate as the rest of the globe.


According to New Scientist, the droid-driven Marginal Ice Zone Program conducted by the Office of Naval Research Department Research Initiative is the largest experiment of its kind in the Arctic Ocean. Researchers involved with the project are employing a motley crew of robots: floaters, drifters, gliders, sportos, motorheads, geeks, bloods (OK, maybe not those last few) and the U.S. Navy has invested $12 million into the project, hoping to predict how much sea north of Canada and Alaska will be navigable in years to come.

[quote position="left" is_quote="true"]If the decline in sea ice continues unabated, many scientists believe we will see an ice-free Arctic in our lifetimes.[/quote]

Arctic ice may not sound very exciting, but it plays a pretty big part in the way our oceans function. When this ice forms, most of the salt from the seawater is pushed out, making the surrounding water denser, and contributing to global ocean circulation—large-scale movements of the Earth’s water that affect global temperatures and weather patterns. Vast and white, the larger ice sheets reflect back nearly 90 percent of the direct sunlight that hits them, keeping the water cool below. The dark ocean surface underneath the ice, on the other hand, absorbs nearly 90 percent of the heat—so as the melt and deformation of the ice occurs, the oceans heat up exponentially.

In order to understand exactly what is happening in ice zones like the Beaufort Sea, a whole spectrum of parameters needs to be measured: air temperature variation, wind conditions, the speed and direction of migrating ice, where waves are coming from, and how quickly ice is melting—all of which have to be looked at as parts of a much more complex, ever-changing planetary picture. If the decline in sea ice continues unabated, many scientists believe we will see an ice-free Arctic within the next 50 years, an eventuality that could have devastating consequences for the planet.

Despite fears in many industries of automation taking human jobs, in the hostile terrain of the Arctic, collecting this data is a job made for our robot friends, which don’t need down coats or hot chocolate, and aren’t known for freezing to death, unlike puny human researchers. Every day these industrious bots digest and beam out the grim facts of climate change brings us one step closer to understanding, and hopefully one day slowing, the creeping loss of Arctic sea ice.

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via Barry Schapiro / Twitter

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