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Results of Boaty McBoatface’s First Research Mission Published

The little yellow submarine named by the internet explored the Southern Ocean, finding surface winds drive mixing in the deep abyss

Boaty McBoatface, awaiting orders. (Povl Abrahamsen, British Antarctic Survey)
smithsonian.com

In 2016, the internet was shot down when it collectively decided that Britain’s new cutting edge polar research ship should be named Boaty McBoatface. Instead, the science ministry vetoed the choice, going with the more respectable RSS Sir David Attenborough. As a consolation prize, however, the Natural Environment Research Council did decide to bestow the silly name on a new long-range autonomous research submarine that would eventually travel aboard the Attenborough. Now, the results are back from Boaty McBoatfaces's first underwater mission, and the yellow submarine is proving it’s more than just a funny name.

In April 2017, the McBoatface sub was deployed in the Southern Ocean for its maiden research voyage aboard the RRS James Clark Ross. (The Attenborough doesn’t go into service until later this year, reports Merrit Kennedy at NPR.) Over the course of three days, Boaty traveled more than 111 miles along a seabed ridge known as the Orkney Passage, where warm and cold water mix deep on the seafloor off the tip of the Antarctic Peninsula.

Travelling 2.5 miles below the surface, Boaty mapped a 3D scan of the mountainous terrain and collected data on water temperature, turbulence and salinity in the lower layers of the region. The results appear in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science.

In recent decades, the winds in the Southern Ocean have grown stronger, likely due to global warming. High winds and choppier waves at the surface eventually cause the lower layers of the ocean to become more turbulent as well. Boaty’s team wanted to explore how the more powerful winds above impacted mixing below.

Normally, when cold water at the bottom of the ocean mixes with warmer surface water, the water churns up and down vertically, like blobs in a lava lamp, reports NPR’s Kennedy. But Boaty showed something new: the water is also mixing in a horizontal direction as ocean currents move along the rugged terrain of the seafloor.

“This was the unique new process that rapidly exchanges water between the cold and the warm and then spreads the effect of the different water properties over a larger area,” climate scientist Eleanor Frajka-Williams of the U.K.’s National Oceanography Centre tells Kennedy. “[This sort of churning is] a lot more efficient than it might otherwise have been.”

The finding could have a broad impact, seeing as this horizontal churn is not currently built into models of how the ocean is warming.

“These findings imply that, in order to predict how sea levels are going to rise around us in coming decades, we need to understand how Antarctic winds are going to evolve—since our mechanism means that further intensification of these winds may result in more deep-ocean warming and faster sea level rise,” project leader Alberto Naveira Garabato also from the University of Southampton tells Aristos Georgiou at Newsweek.

The team will continue to study the new type of mixing, but Boaty has already moved on to other missions. In January and February of 2018, McBoatface spent 51 hours exploring beneath Antarctica’s Filchner Ice Shelf System, and this year Boaty will search around the bed of the North Sea to look for releases of gas. Eventually, researchers want to send Boaty on an epic voyage, crossing under Arctic sea ice. And the little sub might even get some friends in the fleet: there are two other Boaty McBoatface vehicles being prepped for service.

“Having three Boaty vehicles in the fleet means we can cover a much wider range of environments and geographic locations than we could with just one,” oceanographer Russell Wynn of the Southampton University told Jonathan Amos at the BBC. “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. We're getting lots of proposals and it’s great that we can meet that demand.”

The submersible’s goofy name is certainly effective for drumming up public interest in the research.

“I thought it was great fun,” Frajka-Williams tells NPR. “It was also great because my kids were a little bit more interested in it, as well.”

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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