Remember Boaty McBoatface? Last year, the National Environment Research Council (NERC) let the public have a say in naming their new research ship, and Britons everywhere wholeheartedly agreed on what the ship should be named.
While the research vessel in the end didn’t get to bear the glorious name – the NERC instead opted for the slightly more conservative, although still delightful, ‘RSS David Attenborough’ – a trio of research submarines now go by Boaty McBoatface.
No one will be living in these yellow submarines: they’re unmanned, remote controlled vessels designed to travel on their own and collect data in places that would be extremely difficult or even impossible to reach with manned expeditions.
There are plans to equip the submersibles with additional sensors in the future, and to use them to detect underwater releases of natural gas, as well as having them traverse the Arctic Ocean below the ice. Scientists are keen to use the Boaty subs to explore all manner of things beneath the waves, but Boaty’s very first mission has only just started: with an expedition taking off from the coast of Chile and headed for the Orkney Passage.
The Orkney Passage is the 3.5 km deep connection between the Southern Ocean and the Atlantic. ‘Bottom water’ – streams of cold, dense water emanating from near the South Pole – travel through the passage into the Atlantic Ocean and beyond. Bottom water is part of what drives the global circulation of ocean water and, through that circulation, heat is redistributed across the planet.
Boaty’s job is to measure the speeds and directions of streams in the Orkney Passage, as well as how turbulent the streams are. Scientists are currently interested in understanding how winds over the Southern Ocean affect the temperature and flow of bottom water. The data that Boaty collects will help them create models for this, and make it easier to make predictions for the future of our climate. As Boaty is able to travel down into the depths of the Passage and collect data whilst on the move, it provides scientists with an entirely new way to study the bottom water.
Scientists know that lately the bottom water has been heating up, which is bad news for animals living on or near the ocean floor. According to Professor Mike Meredith, who was interviewed for BBC News, these animals are well equipped to deal with low temperatures, but even a slightly higher temperature could have dire consequences for them over time. Another consequence of warmer bottom water is rising sea levels; warmer bottom water currents mean warmer oceans overall, and as warm water expands this means rising sea levels.
Researchers are hoping to figure out why the bottom water has been heating up. For example, the currents in the Orkney Passage becoming more turbulent could be one explanation, as this would mean that the bottom water is mixed with the warmer layers of water above it, causing the bottom water’s temperature to rise. In turn, the increased water turbulence could be caused by changes in wind patterns. Boaty McBoatface may play a key role in discovering the real reason.