Boaty McBoatface's First Mission Reveals Important Climate Change Mechanism

Boaty McBoatface, the Internet's favorite British research submarine, made an important discovery on its maiden mission that will affect climate change models going forward.

Boaty McBoatface's First Mission Reveals Important Climate Change Mechanism
Povl Abrahamsen / British Antarctic Survey

Boaty McBoatface, the British research submarine famously named through a viral Internet poll, has made an important climate change discovery in Antarctica on its very first mission.

Boaty McBoatface Gets Serious, Makes Climate Change Discovery on First Mission

While its Internet-given name suggests otherwise, Boaty McBoatface is all about doing important climate change research, uncovering a significant connection between Antarctic winds and rising sea temperatures on its very first mission.

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During a three-day mission in 2017, Boaty McBoatface, the autonomous submersible--formally called the Autosub Long Range--dove deep under water to gather data on changing temperatures at the bottom of the Southern Ocean.

Traveling 180 km through underwater valleys and mountainous terrain as deep as 4 km, Boaty took readings on temperature, salt content, and turbulence in the water, navigating via an echo sounder. Boaty then returned to its preprogrammed recovery point where the research team recovered it and downloaded the data it had collected.

That data, along with other measurements taken by the research vessel RRS James Clark Ross, revealed an unknown mechanism deep underwater that links antarctic winds with the rising temperature in the ocean, a major contributor to recent sea level rise. For decades, the increase in greenhouse gases and the hole in the ozone layer over Antarctica have increased the strength of Antarctic winds, but until now, nobody knew that these stronger winds were related to the amount and intensity of water turbulence in the lowest part of the ocean.

The water on the ocean floor is much colder than the water in the middle depth or surface level of the ocean, making it much denser. The turbulence Boaty recorded along the ocean floor causes more of the warmer water in the middle depth to mix with the colder water below, transfering some of its heat and warming the water below it. This warming makes the colder, denser water to expand, contributing to rising sea levels.

Important Discovery Will Affect Climate Change Models Going Forward

Boaty McBoatface
Source: Povl Abrahamsen / British Antarctic Survey

This mechanism isn't included in any current climate models, so none of their future projections reflect the amount of sea level rise it produces, something that scientists and researchers will have to take into consideration going forward.

"Our study is an important step in understanding how the climate change happening in the remote and inhospitable Antarctic waters will impact the warming of the oceans as a whole and future sea level rise," said Alberto Naveira Garabato, professor at the University of Southampton, who led the research which was published today in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

As for Boaty McBoatface, this discovery proves that the Internet's favorite boat is more than just a viral meme. "The path taken by Boaty created a spatial view of the turbulence near the seafloor," said Dr. Eleanor Frajka-Williams from the National Oceanography Centre. "The data from Boaty McBoatface gave us a completely new way of looking at the deep ocean."

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Fellow team member Dr. Povl Abrahamsen, from the British Antarctic Survey, says that Boaty McBoatface demonstrates the importance of such submersibles for studying previously inaccessible ocean depths. "This study is a great example of how exciting new technology such as the unmanned submarine "Boaty McBoatface" can be used along with ship-based measurements and cutting-edge ocean models to discover and explain previously unknown processes affecting heat transport within the ocean."

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