It is known as the “Doomsday Glacier”: a wedge of fast-flowing ice pouring into the ocean off the Antarctic coast to the south-west of Chile.
It is fast by the standards of glaciers — with a surface speed over 2 km per year — but it is also fast-melting, which is what is so worrying about it. The Earth’s warming climate has already ensured that Thwaites Glacier, as it is officially called, contributes four per cent of the world’s annual sea level rise.
And because the glacier is also being melted by warm water washing beneath it, the more that it melts, the faster it flows, exacerbating the problem and transforming more of what once had been ice into new ocean.
In the worst-case scenario, Thwaites could collapse completely, leading to global sea level rises of three or four metres.
A lot of scientists want to know what’s going on around Thwaites so they can figure out exactly how quickly it is warming and how threatening it could prove to be.
This is where engineer Peter King comes in. The Autonomous Underwater Vehicle (AUV) Facility Coordinator at the University of Tasmania’s Australian Maritime College, King has spent the past four years working on nupiri muka, a fully autonomous vessel designed to venture deep beneath the Antarctic ice, gather data, then return to report its findings to researchers.
After testing the $5 million AUV off the Tasmanian coast, followed by a capability demonstration trip to Antarctica in 2019, King and team were finally ready to send nupiri muka on a mission partnering with KOPRI — the Korean Polar Research Institute.
When create speaks with King, he is in Wellington, New Zealand, having just returned to dry land after a long and icy sea voyage.
“The AUV team and the AUV and all the equipment were all mobilised on to their icebreaker,” he said of KOPRI.
“We spent two months with them down south and were given an opportunity to deploy our AUV down in the Thwaites Glacier area.”
The journey is such a long one that the team had just six days at Antarctica to deploy its AUV. While there, however, they did get a lot done.
“We ended up sending the vehicle under the ice six times, and the longest of those was a 30 km incursion,” King said.
“So a 60 km round trip underneath the ice, which was a pretty big achievement for us, considering last year we went less than a kilometre.”
And the AUV had to make that journey almost entirely unassisted.
“For the mission, for about 90 per cent of it, the vehicle was completely autonomous,” King said.
“We had no communications, no tracking. So a lot of the lead-up work and mission preparation goes into how do you deal with that? And then having the layers of logic and fallback and redundancies, so that the vehicle is robust enough and has enough confidence that it will return.”
“We ended up sending the vehicle under the ice six times, and the longest of those was a 30 km incursion" Peter King