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Pierre Dutrieux and drone
Pierre Dutrieux, an oceanographer from Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, works on one of the three Seaglider underwater drones deployed in West Antarctica. (Paul G. Allen Philanthropies Photo)

A scientific team supported by Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen is reporting the successful deployment of a trio of undersea drones to monitor how climate change affects Antarctica’s ice sheets.

Now it’s up to the drones.

“We are so pleased with both the initial data collection and the unprecedented operational success of the mission thus far,” Spencer Reeder, director of climate and energy for Paul G. Allen Philanthropies, said in a news release. “It is hard to fathom that we have already witnessed multiple fully autonomous Seaglider forays of up to 140 kilometers round-trip under the ice shelf.”

The project is being conducted by researchers from the University of Washington and Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, with almost $2 million in funding from Allen.

Allen’s contribution supported the development and deployment of the self-propelled, battery-powered drones, known as Seagliders, as well as an array of free-floating probes. The system is designed to monitor the ebb and flow of ice autonomously over the course of the Antarctic winter.

“This is truly a breakthrough use of technology that has opened up new research approaches to understanding the dynamics of these critical coastal ice sheets,” Reeder said.

The drones and the probes were put into the water in January from the South Korean icebreaker Araon, and have taken up their positions beneath West Antarctica’s Dotson Ice Shelf.

Scientists said they were pleased to see how the drones were able to navigate through the ice crevasses on the underside of the shelf — one of the important but risky tasks they’ll have to do on their own.

“We went into this research project knowing it was high risk,” said Craig Lee, senior principal oceanographer at UW’s Applied Physics Laboratory. “Adapting ocean glider technology to navigate and sample under ice shelves is completely new. This successful demonstration paves the way for collecting sustained measurements that will advance our understanding of ocean-ice shelf interactions, addressing a key challenge for predicting ice sheet melt.”

After deployment, the ice set in, sealing the drones underneath until the ice breaks up in November.

For nearly nine months, the drones will be in semi-hibernation mode. During most of that time, they’ll loiter about 260 feet (80 meters) beneath the surface to conserve battery power. Every month, one of the Seagliders will get a wakeup call to survey ocean conditions in front of the shelf — gathering readings on salinity, temperature, oxygen content and other metrics that were previously impossible to collect.

The data will be stored aboard the drones, and transmitted to UW via satellite when the ice retreats enough to let the drones surface. Researchers won’t know whether the Seagliders have survived the winter until they get those transmissions.

In a Q&A with Paul Allen’s team, Columbia University oceanographer Pierre Dutrieux said he’s been pleasantly surprised by the success so far, but isn’t taking anything for granted.

“In my experience, anytime you do work in the field, there’s always something that goes wrong — something that you didn’t plan for, particularly when you’re operating in a totally new environment like this,” he said.

Update for 1:25 p.m. PT March 30: This story has been revised to reflect the distinction between sea ice and the Dotson Ice Shelf.

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