Image from National Oceanography Center
Meet Ammonite, Bellamite and Coprolite. You've probably never heard of them before (and may not hear much about them thereafter), but these three robots, part of a growing fleet of so-called Autonomous Underwater Vehicles (AUVs), could soon become a potent tool in global efforts to forestall the worst of climate change. Developed by a team of oceanographers at the National Oceanography Center, Southamptom, UK, the trio is now busily profiling the top 1,000 meters of the Atlantic Ocean between the Canary Islands and the west coast of Africa, reports New Scientist's Jessica Griggs to detect any early indications of future climate variations.
The main advantage of using AUVs over traditional research vessels is that they are much cheaper and easier to deploy (they can remain in the water for up to 100 days). Also, they are battery-powered -- one charge is sufficient to cover about 3,000 km -- and can glide effortlessly through the water thanks to their wings; they can also change their buoyancy at will to either sink or rise.
They have high spatial resolution, which provides better profiling measurements, and can easily withstand harsh weather conditions while underwater. Each is equipped with a GPS and phone/modem device, which allows the gliders to communicate with computers through a satellite connection. At the same time, researchers can download measurements and upload new directions on the fly.
Since their launch in September, the gliders have been transmitting temperature, salinity and current data back to the NOC three times a day. Their job is to monitor ocean convection, or heat circulation (see: oceanic conveyor belt) in the Atlantic; some scientists are worried that the planet could be plunged into a new Ice Age if the oceanic conveyor belt, which helps moderate the global climate, were to stop -- or even slow down.
A successful run means the gliders will join the NOC's Rapid-WATCH (Rapid Climate Change - Will the Atlantic Thermohaline Circulation Halt?) project, which currently oversees 25 sets of instruments moored at several locations across the Atlantic between Miami and northwest Africa. I wrote about this project earlier this year when the NOC first announced plans to deploy an armada of sensors and ROVs to gather measurements in the Gulf Stream. Here's more on why scientists are so concerned about the Gulf Stream shutting down:
The results of an initial study Srokosz and his colleagues carried out in 2004 suggested that the Gulf Stream "fluctuates in a highly unpredictable fashion." As such, he believes past measurements may not provide an ideal predictive indicator for what could happen in the near future; beginning later this year, Rapid Watch will monitor the Gulf Stream until 2014 with an armada of ocean-floor sensors - which will assess current flow, temperature and other variables - and robot gliders - which will monitor the current itself. This system shares many of the same features as the Hudson River environmental monitoring network we previously reported on.
The consequences of a freeze in the Gulf Stream could be drastic, as McKie outlines: "Without the Gulf Stream, the UK would be as cold as Canada in winter. Ports could freeze over and snowstorms and blizzards would paralyse the country."
More about robot gliders
Heat Harvesting Marine "Robot" Glider Flight Announced By Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution & Webb Research
This 'Bot is on the Hunt... for Spilled Oil
UK Deploying Armada of Robot Submarines and Sensors to Monitor Gulf Stream