Next-gen robotic probes to head for the Antarctic depths


Australian-led research aims to net a haul of data on ocean temperature and plankton health. Geetanjali Rangnekar reports.


Stuart Rintoul of the CSIRO with one of the Argo probes.
Stuart Rintoul of the CSIRO with one of the Argo probes.
CSIRO

Australia’s federal scientific agency, the CSIRO, is set to launch a new generation of data gathering robots near the coast of Antarctica, which will provide unparalleled information about the Southern Ocean.

The floats will gather data about how the ocean absorbs heat and carbon dioxide, and obtain measurements of the clouds and aerosols that make up the atmospheric cover over the vast water body.

The six-week exploratory mission involves collaborations between research institutes from the USA, France and Japan, and is being led by the CSIRO’s Stephen Rintoul, a physical oceanographer based in Tasmania. The probes will be deployed off Australia’s only state-of-the-art marine research vessel, the Investigator.

The Argo probes are part of a global free-roaming network of autonomous robots that spend their life continuously monitoring the temperature and salinity of the oceans. These unique entities work by drifting at certain depths. Every 10 days they rise to the surface slowly, amassing information along the way. This is transmitted to satellites that locate the probes via GPS. Once this is done the Argo sinks back to its designated depth to rinse and repeat.

The robotic probes, launching on January 11, will descend to 5000 metres, to learn how the Southern Hemisphere’s ocean is contributing to changes in global sea levels as it absorbs increasing amounts of heat and carbon dioxide.

They will also gather information about the way the clouds over the Southern Ocean interact with the aerosols released from greenhouse gases. Thanks to rising greenhouse gas emissions, this relationship is evolving, as is the way heat is absorbed and reflected.

Finally, the machines will enable scientists from the Antarctic Climate and Ecosystems Cooperative Research Centre to evaluate the health of phytoplankton — key components of the oceanic ecosystem — by studying iron levels. This will in turn give them important information about the levels of biological activity in the Southern Ocean.

Current climate change models are unable to take into account how the Southern Ocean may be contributing to oscillations in the planet’s climate. All this valuable data will help fill those gaps in knowledge by providing year-round measurements of the water body, something that has never been done before.

This information will be shared all over the world to help scientists improve and refine climate change predictions for the future.

Geetanjali Rangnekar is a science communicator and editor, based in Adelaide, Australia.
  1. http://acecrc.org.au/
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