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Boaty McBoatface Completes Its First Mission

The little submarine named by the Internet investigated the icy deep waters of Antarctica’s Orkney Channel

Boaty McBoatface. It is not a boat and it has no face. Please discuss. (National Oceanography Centre )
smithsonian.com

In the spring of 2016, denizens of the Internet managed to spoof what could've been a solemn scientific endeavor: they voted to christen the United Kingdom's new $287 million polar research vessel Boaty McBoatface. The Natural Environment Research Council (NERC), which operates the ship, vetoed the suggestion, opting to name the ship Sir David Attenborough after the famous television naturalist. In the interest of supporting democracy, however, they passed the name on to a small, next-generation remote-controlled submarine, also designed to investigate the deep ocean. Now, Boaty McBoatface has concluded its maiden voyage, proving it’s more than just a funny name, reports Laura Geggel at LiveScience.

According to a press releaseMcBoatface’s job over the 7-week mission was to gather baseline measurements from the 13,000-foot-deep Orkney Passage. Traveling on the R.R.S. James Clark Ross (the R.R.S. Attenborough is still under construction), McBoatface conducted three missions in the valley, flying through water that was below 32 degrees. It measured water temperature, intensity of the turbulence and other metrics. At one point, Geggel reports, it encountered a cloud of krill so dense its sensors confused the invertebrates for the seafloor. But McBoatface got the job done.

Scientists decided to study the Orkney Passage because they've seen Antarctic Bottom Water warming and contracting over the last three decades, says the project's mission page. The Orkney Passage is an ideal site: it funnels massive amounts of water northward to the Atlantic, and also mixes warmer and colder waters together. Scientists hypothesize changes in wind patterns cause the cold water to mix more with warmer, shallower water, Geggel reports. That in turn means the cold Antarctic water warms more quickly at the equator, which could have consequences for global climate change. The researchers will use the data McBoatface collected to analyze whether their model is correct or if other processes are at play.

“We have been able to collect massive amounts of data that we have never been able to capture before due to the way Boaty is able to move underwater,” lead scientist Alberto Naveira Garabato from the University of Southampton tells The Guardian. “Up until now we have only been able to take measurements from a fixed point, but now we are able to obtain a much more detailed picture of what is happening in this very important underwater landscape.”

Like the Attenborough, McBoatface is no run-of-the-mill research vessel. It’s a new type of autonomous vehicle called the Autosub Long Range. And Jonathan Amos at the BBC reports there are actually three Boaty McBoatface subs that can be sent on missions.

“Having three Boaty vehicles in the fleet means we can cover a much wider range of environments and geographic locations,” Russell Wynn of the National Oceanography Centre tells Amos. “So, one vehicle might be going out to Antarctica and surveying around and under the ice; another might be going to the deepest parts of the ocean, down to 6km; and another might be doing something more applied in, for example, the North Sea.”  

How do the researchers feel about the goofy name of their sub? They don’t say, but it’s unlikely you’d be reading this story about Antarctic research if McBoatface was named, for instance, Autosub Long Range.  

About Jason Daley

Jason Daley is a Madison, Wisconsin-based writer specializing in natural history, science, travel, and the environment. His work has appeared in Discover, Popular Science, Outside, Men’s Journal, and other magazines.

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