On Maiden Voyage, Boaty McBoatface Identifies Significant Culprit in Rising Sea Levels

Boaty McBoatface is a high-tech undersea autonomous submarine with a name that just makes you smile. (Photo: NERC)

Boaty McBoatface has gone where no autonomous vehicle has ever gone before — and come back with answers. The little submarine that could has found a link between increasing Antarctic winds and rising sea temperatures.

The robotic sub earned its unique moniker after an internet competition last year to name the new technologically advanced polar research vessel. Boaty McBoatface grabbed more than 124,000 votes, but was ultimately denied as officials were reluctant to give such an important vessel an unusual designation. Instead, the research vessel was named after naturalist Sir David Attenborough and its accompanying drone submarine was given the Boaty name.

R.R.S. Sir David Attenborough
A rendering of the R.R.S. Sir David Attenborough. (Photo: NERC)

Maiden voyage: The Antarctic mission

In April 2017, Boaty traveled with the British Antarctic Survey research ship James Clark Ross from Punta Arenas, Chile, to the Orkney Passage in Antarctica, a 2-mile-deep area of the Southern Ocean. Boaty's mission was to navigate through a "cold abyssal current that forms an important part of the global circulation of ocean water," The Telegraph reported.

The vehicle traveled through treacherous underwater valleys, changing depth, speed and direction to accommodate the terrain. Over 112 miles, the vehicle tested the temperature, saltiness and turbulence of the water at the bottom of the ocean. And according to Eureka Alert, it was a productive mission:

In recent decades, winds blowing over the Southern Ocean have been getting stronger due to the hole in the ozone layer above Antarctica and increasing greenhouse gases. The data collected by Boaty, along with other ocean measurements collected from research vessel RRS James Clark Ross, have revealed a mechanism that enables these winds to increase turbulence deep in the Southern Ocean, causing warm water at mid depths to mix with cold, dense water in the abyss.

"The Orkney Passage is a key choke-point to the flow of abyssal waters in which we expect the mechanism linking changing winds to abyssal water warming to operate," lead scientist Alberto Naveira Garabato, a professor from the University of Southampton, told The Telegraph before the launch. "... Our goal is to learn enough about these convoluted processes to represent them in the models that scientists use to predict how our climate will evolve over the 21st century and beyond."

And that's just what Boaty did. After seven weeks and three underwater missions, the longest of which lasted three days, Boaty reached depths of almost 2.5 miles. The water would often dip below 33 degree Fahrenheit, with the abyssal current sometimes topping out at 1 knot. Basically, it was a very unpleasant trip for Boaty, but scientists are thrilled with the data regarding water flow and climate change that the autonomous sub gathered.

It's not just that everyone wants the little yellow sub to succeed, either. The data matters because it will change our current models for predicting the impact of increasing global temperatures on our oceans.

The Antarctic mission was part of a joint project between the University of Southampton, the National Oceanography Centre, the British Antarctic Survey, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution and Princeton University.

They released a visualization and explanation of one of Boaty's underwater adventures as well.

Risky business in the Arctic

In the future, the remotely operated sub will became the first undersea drone to complete an Arctic crossing –– traveling under 1,500 miles of sea ice from one end of the ocean basin to the other, according to the National Oceanography Centre.

"It represents one of the last great transects on Earth for an autonomous sub," professor Russell Wynn, from Boaty's U.K. base at the National Oceanography Centre, told the BBC. "Previously, such subs have gone perhaps 150 kilometers under the ice and then come back out again. Boaty will have the endurance to go all the way to the Arctic."

Since GPS guidance is not reliable underwater, Boaty will also have to learn how to read a map.

"You give it a map of the seabed in its brain and then as it travels, it uses sonar to collect data that it can compare with the stored map," Wynn told the BBC. "This should tell it where it is. It’s a neat concept, but it’s never been tested over thousands of kilometers before."

Wynn also warned fans of Boaty not to get too attached to the little sub due to the serious dangers that can plague undersea autonomous vehicles.

"There could well be some dramas ahead for those people who plan to follow Boaty on his missions," he warned.

As the internet well knows, if anyone can do it, it's Boaty McBoatface. Here's hoping this little robot continues to succeed, making it from one end of the Arctic to the other with flying colors.