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16 March 2017

Boaty McBoatface Set for First Antarctic Research Mission

In March of 2016, the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC) made the somewhat misguided decision to launch an online campaign in order to name the UK’s latest world-class polar research ship. As is often the case when posing a question to the denizens of the web, serious suggestions were thrown aside as #BoatyMcBoatface started trending worldwide. Of course, giving such a name to what is supposed to be a highly advanced and highly respected research vessel wasn’t going to sit well with NERC, so the name was scrapped in favour of the  vastly more appropriate title of RRS Sir David Attenborough;  a fitting tribute to the iconic naturalist and broadcaster. However, there remained significant online support for Boaty McBoatface, and so the name was later given to one of the National Oceanography Centre’s Autosub Long Range Autonomous Underwater Vehicles (AUVs). Ol’ Boaty now also serves as something of a mascot for the NOC, helping them to “tell the story of ocean exploration to a whole new audience.”

One year on, Boaty McBoatface is now undergoing final preparations for its first ever Antarctic research mission as part of the DynOPO (Dynamics of the Orkney Passage Outflow) expedition, scheduled to depart from Punta Arenas in Chile on Friday 17th March.

NOC's Autosub Long Range with its hood off   - Img: NOC/Mike Meredith
The overall aim of the expedition is to study how Antarctic Bottom Water (AABW), some of the deepest and coldest abyssal ocean water on earth, affects climate change. In order to achieve this, Boaty McBoatface will travel along with a plethora of other specialised instruments on board the BAS research ship RRS James Ross Clark to its eventual destination – the Orkney Passage.

While situated in the Orkney Passage, a key chokepoint that AABW must navigate on its way to the Atlantic Ocean, Boaty will be deployed into an abyssal current of AABW, where it will travel back and forth taking measurements regarding the intensity of ocean turbulence.

So, why is such data important? As it turns out, AABW has massive effect on global sea temperatures, with increased turbulence, thought to be a result of changing winds, leading to more heat being mixed into AABW from shallower and therefore warmer waters. As these waters move towards the equator, the heat is carried with them.

Professor Alberto Naveira Garabato from the University of Southampton, lead scientist for the research expedition, stated, “We know that a major driver of the abyssal ocean warming, at least in the Atlantic Ocean, is changes in winds over the Southern Ocean.

“The abyssal waters of the World Ocean sink in the Southern Ocean, and flow northward along the seafloor in submarine streams. When these streams encounter submarine topography or key chokepoints, they navigate it by squeezing through valleys and around mountains, occasionally forming submarine waterfalls – much as a river flowing toward the sea does on the Earth’s surface.

“The Orkney Passage is a key chokepoint to the flow of abyssal waters in which we expect the mechanism linking changing winds to abyssal water warming to operate. We will measure how fast the streams flow, how turbulent they are, and how they respond to changes in winds over the Southern Ocean.

“Our goal is to learn enough about these convoluted processes to represent them (for the first time) in the models that scientists use to predict how our climate will evolve over the 21st century and beyond.”

BAS oceanographer and co-investigator of the study, Dr Povl Abrahamsen, also commented, “We have been monitoring the flow of AABW through the Orkney Passage for years. The DynOPO project will provide us with a unique, high-resolution dataset combining moored and moving instruments, that will help us get to the bottom of the complex physical processes occurring in this important region.”

In closing, Professor Alberto Naveira Garabato further added that, “One of the most surprising features of the climate change that we are currently experiencing is that the abyssal waters of the world ocean have been warming steadily over the last few decades. Establishing the causes of this warming is important because the warming plays an important role in moderating the ongoing (and likely future) increases in atmospheric temperature and sea level around the globe.”

Sam Bonson

Sam is an aspiring novelist with a passion for fantasy and crime thrillers. He is currently working as a content writer, journalist & editor in an attempt to expand his horizons.