The Southern Ocean that surrounds Antarctica is a dark and forbidding place where winds often exceed 80 miles per hour and towering waves as high as a 5-story building. It is also littered with ice bergs. For all those reasons, ships and sailors don’t go there except under the most extraordinary circumstances. We know less about the Southern Ocean than we do about the moon or Mars.
In the most recent Volvo Ocean Race, the yacht Scallwag broached while surfing down a monstrous wave in the middle of the night. The boom crashed from one side to the other, sweeping John Fisher, an experienced ocean racer, overboard. Despite the fact that Fisher was in a survival suit with GPS, radio, and light beacons, the crew was unable to locate him during a frantic 5-hour search. Life expectancy in the frigid waters at the bottom of the world is about 7 minutes in a survival suit, 30 seconds without one.
Data From Southern Ocean Is Hard To Come By
Acquiring data from the Southern Ocean is critical to making accurate scientific assessments of the Earth’s atmosphere and oceans. Because accessing that part of the world is so dangerous, a consortium of researchers sponsored by the Li Ka Shing Foundation created a series of sailing drones capable of withstanding the fierce conditions in the seas around Antarctica.
The Saildrone consortium included representatives from NOAA, NASA, CSIRO, Palmer Long-Term Ecological Research, the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, the Southern Ocean Observing System, the Japan Agency for Marine-Earth Science and Technology, the Korea Polar Research Institute, the Norwegian Polar Institute, the University of Exeter, the University of Gothenburg, the University of Otago, and the New Zealand National Institute of Water and Atmospheric Research.
The sailing drones are packed with sensors and technology from the top of their 15-foot high mast to the tip of their 8-foot deep keel. The 23-foot long hull is powered solely by wind while solar panels provide electricity for the instruments.
“One of our largest ‘blind spots’ in terms of our climate knowledge and its future prediction lies in the Southern Ocean. This is mostly due to the serious lack of observations, in particular in winter, in this remote and harsh environment. This leads to a poor understanding of how these polar oceans function,” said Sebastiaan Swart, co-chair of the Southern Ocean Observing System. “These exciting, high-resolution observations from Saildrone during its circumnavigation of the Antarctic provide valuable ground-based datasets for scientists to understand the Southern Ocean better and evaluate the models we use to predict weather and climate.”
“In terms of carbon and heat, the Southern Ocean is by far the most important ocean. Globally, the Southern Ocean takes up about half of all carbon and 75% of all heat that enters the ocean. This makes it disproportionately more important to place efforts and resources, such as those occurring by robotic platforms like Saildrone, into obtaining more scientific measurements in this polar region,” says Swart.
Saildrone Completes Circumnavigation Of Antarctica
One of those drones has now completed the first unmanned circumnavigation of Antarctica. The journey covered 22,000 kilometers and took 196 days. During the voyage in below freezing conditions, the drone encountered 50-foot high waves, and sustained winds of 80 mph. It also crashed into an iceberg or two.
“There’s a lot left to be learned about the ocean’s uptake of CO2 emissions, especially in the Southern Ocean. Up until a few years ago, the Southern Ocean was understood to be a large CO2 sink. Yet, that understanding was based primarily on observations made from ships that steer clear of the harshest weather in the Southern Ocean, leaving winter months undersampled,” says Adrienne Sutton, an oceanographer with the NOAA Pacific Marine Environmental Laboratory Carbon Group.
One of the findings from the data acquired by Saildrone 1020 is that the Southern Ocean actually absorbs less carbon dioxide than previously thought. That knowledge will help climate scientists formulate more accurate projections climate models for the future.
“The Saildrone technology is revolutionizing how data can be collected in the Southern Ocean, providing for the first time a way for crucial data to be collected throughout the year and in places that ships rarely visit. Applications include a better understanding of the amount of carbon dioxide taken up by the Southern Ocean and determining the changing environmental conditions and processes driving change,” says Bronte Tilbrook, a renowned biogeochemist who studies ocean acidification and the global carbon cycle at CSIRO.
Building An Indestructible Drone
Previous iterations of Saildrones included sail structures like those used by wind surfers, but they proved unable to withstand the rigors of the environment around Antarctica. The latest “square rigger” sail makes the drones less maneuverable but is able to withstand the pounding the drone takes during its voyages.
“While the square rig has less performance range than the regular saildrone wing and struggles to sail upwind, it does a great job of sailing downwind and can still get you where you need to go in the Southern Ocean,” says Saildrone founder and CEO Richard Jenkins. “You inevitably sacrifice maneuverability for survivability, but we have created something that gets the job done and that the Southern Ocean just can’t destroy!”
Public Data & STEM Lesson Plans
All data from this mission is available to the public at the Saildrone website and its use in scientific journals is encouraged. Educational outreach to expose future generations to the rapid changes taking place in the Antarctic is also part of the Saildrone mission. In partnership with the 1851 Trust, it has developed a series of STEM lesson plans rooted in science, technology, engineering, and math. These lesson plans are available to teachers free of charge.
“A monitoring system for the Southern Ocean is one of our highest priorities,” says Jenkins. “Understanding heat and carbon fluxes, fish populations, and ocean acidification in the Southern Ocean are absolutely key to improve the understanding of our climate, and to the sustainability of life on this planet. Only very significantly increased measurement will enable meaningful predictions for the future.”
In furtherance of that goal, Saildrone is planning to deploy a fleet of up up to 20 Saildrones to monitor the Southern Ocean on a consistent basis year round. It may also expand its fleet to cover all the world’s oceans.
All photos courtesy of Saildrone.