UT researchers send underwater robot to investigate uncharted icy waters

AUSTIN (KXAN) — Greenland is a beautiful frozen country under siege. The ice caps that make Greenland so distinct are retreating and melting due to climate change, and that’s bad news for everyone on Earth.

“The melting of the ice caps is a major contributor to sea level,” said Dr. Ginny Catania, a professor at the University of Texas at Austin, who will soon embark on a mission to study the uncharted waters around Greenland’s glaciers.

“You see that some glaciers are retreating a lot and other glaciers are not retreating that much,” Catania said, and she hopes to understand why.

She’s leading a team that includes scientists from UT and the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Greenland next year to investigate what they think may be the cause – new land being created under glaciers.

“If you increase the topography, it slows down your glacier retreat,” Catania said.

Understanding this could help researchers around the world better predict the future of climate change.

Create new lands at the bottom of the ocean

How do glaciers create new land? When a glacier melts, it slides into the ocean, and that’s why it’s called retreating. Catania and his team believe that the earth under the glacier is scraped and pushed forward, creating mounds of earth at the front of the glacier.

Also, the dirty ice that melts at the top of the glacier creates small streams of water that cross the glacier. These streams flow into the ocean, creating powerful plumes of dust and dirt underwater.

Then there are the icebergs. Icebergs break away from the edge of glaciers and may contain dirt frozen into the ice, Catania said. As the iceberg melts, dirt may fall to the bottom of the ocean.

All that dirt and dust makes those mounds bigger. Catania says 10 centimeters of new land at the base of glaciers is considered significant growth. In Alaska, the mounds are several meters high.

Send the robots

“All the processes that take place underwater, obviously it’s a very changeable and dangerous area to work in,” Catania said. So they send a robot the size of a van to investigate.

The Nereid Under Ice, or NUI, is a specialized robot designed to work in deep, turbulent water. The robot is equipped with a mechanical arm that will help take samples from the base of the glacier.

“This arm can grab sediment and get samples for us. This has never been done before in this type of environment,” Catania said.

It will be controlled by a 10 mile long fiber optic cable. If this cable breaks for any reason, it will automatically return to a pick-up point.

Why should we care about new lands at the bottom of the ocean

The data collected by the robot will be used to develop a new computer model. This model could help predict the rate at which glaciers are retreating.

Melting glaciers in Greenland are depositing cold fresh water into the ocean around them, according to Catania. This water disturbs what is called the Gulf Stream. The Gulf Stream brings warm water from the equator to Europe and Great Britain.

Catania said that if the Gulf Stream is altered too much as a result of melting glaciers, Europe’s hot and humid weather could soon be more like northern Canada.

It also has a huge impact on us here in Texas.

“You add cold fresh water in the polar regions,” Catania said. “And that has big impacts on global ocean circulation, which affects all of our weather patterns.”

Changes in ocean temperatures have been linked to more frequent severe weather and more powerful storms.

Sea level rise is also a problem. A recent NOAA report found that if climate change and the melting of Greenland and Antarctica are not slowed, sea levels could rise by almost a foot.

A suggestion to slow the melting of glaciers, by accumulating the mounds that form at their base. By slowing the rate at which the glacier slides into the ocean, you are also slowing the rate at which it is melting.

Catania says they are looking for additional funding for the project. They hope to have access to an additional boat for their trip.

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