This Underwater Robot Is Helping Scientists To Gain Clarity of Antarctic Ice Melting

Antarctica, which is the coldest continent on our planet is losing its ice. Since this region is the world’s freezer, scientists are worried about the impact Antarctic ice melting will have on Earth. A team led by Cornell University researchers recently published a study suggesting the role of crevasses in the icy continent.

Scientists discovered that these crevasses are more than just fractures in the ice, as they also play the role of distributing seawater beneath Antarctic ice shelves. Researchers suggest that a remotely operated underwater robot could be used to explore underneath the Antarctic ice sheet. It will also help us to understand more about their impact on the recent increase in global sea level.

Scientists assume the crevasses to exist as static icy voids. But the Icefin robot would move up and down a crevasse along the base of the Ross Ice Shelf. It also created the world’s first 3D measurement of ocean conditions within the grounding zone. Note that the conditions at the grounding zones are extremely critical. This is because of the region where the ice shelf meets with the coastline.

“Crevasses move water along the coastline of an ice shelf to an extent previously unknown, and in a way, models did not predict,” said Peter Washam, a research scientist at Cornell University and the study’s lead author. “The ocean takes advantage of these features, and you can ventilate the ice shelf cavity through them,” the polar oceanographer added.

How the Icefin Underground Robot Traveled Through The Icy Crevasses To Study Antarctic ice melting

The Icefin underground robot will commence its journey in a new circulation pattern. This pattern is a means of jet funneling water sideways across the crevasse. Scientists behind this innovation reveal that its sophisticated technology will discover the increasing and sinking currents. They also have various ice formations caused by shifting flows and temperatures.

These discoveries will boost the accuracy of our models in predicting ice shelf melting and freezing rates at grounding zones. Note that scientists have obtained less data by making direct observations of these regions. However, sending an underground robot will improve the quality of data we obtain about Antarctic ice melting.

Scientists deployed the Icefin robot in late 2019. It is about 12 feet long with a diameter of less than 10 inches. The underground vehicle descended via a 1,900-foot borehole drilled with hot water, at a spot close to the region where Antarctica’s largest ice shelf meets the Kamb Ice Stream.

Senior research engineer Matthew Meister conducted a dive and moved the Icefin robot into one of the five crevasses spotted close to the borehole. The vehicle has cameras, thrusters, sensors, sonar, and other instruments. The robot used its powerful instruments to measure water pressure, temperature, and salinity as it ascended to about 150 feet up one slope and descended to the other slope.

The underground observation showed the changing ice patterns within the crevasse. It also revealed the green-tinted marine ice, vertical runnels, and stalactites of this region.

Researchers marvel at the dynamic interaction between the melting crevasse base and salt rejection from freezing close to the top. The interaction existed because of the movement of water which ascend and descend around the horizontal jet, melting and freezing on both sides of the crevasses.

What Scientists Suggested About Crevasses and Rising Sea Level

Picture of Icefin on the ice shelf surface after accomplishing the final dive of the 2019 field season at the Ross Ice Shelf. (Image Credit: Justin Lawrence)

Researchers who conducted the study shared their thoughts about crevasses and increasing seal levels on Antarctic ice melting.

“Each feature reveals a different type of circulation or relationship of the ocean temperature to freezing. Seeing so many different features within a crevasse, so many changes in the circulation was surprising,” Washam noted.

The team concluded that these discoveries underscored the potential of crevasses to carry around the changing ocean conditions, whether warmer or colder, across the most vulnerable area of an ice shelf.

“If the water heats up or cools down, it can move around in the back of the ice shelf quite vigorously, and crevasses are one of the means by which that happens,” Washam emphasized. “When it comes to projecting sea-level rise, that’s important to have in the models.”

The team published their findings in the journal Science Advances.


A team led by Cornell University researchers recently published a study suggesting the role of crevasses in the icy continent. The study also revealed the clarity of Antarctic ice melting. The researchers made the discovery based on the data provided by the Icefin underground robot that has been exploring Antarctica since 2019. What do you think about this scientific discovery? Check out these two best telescopes from our Amazon affiliate links.

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