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Journey to Antarctica: How We’ll See Deep Beneath the Ice

An autonomous research vessel called the Hugin will burrow to depths that human scientists cannnot

goodell antarctica hugin

The Hugin

Linda Welzenbach

This is the second dispatch in a series from Jeff Goodell, who will be investigating the effect of climate change on Thwaites glacier.

January 30th, 10 a.m.

Technology won’t save us from climate change, but it might help us understand the risks we face on a superheated planet. Case in point: The Nathaniel B. Palmer, the ocean research vessel carrying us to Antarctica, is loaded with high-tech research tools for measuring and mapping the mysterious, turbulent Southern Ocean. The key to understanding how quickly the big glaciers of Antarctica will disappear, it turns out, is understanding what’s going on in the Southern Ocean that surrounds it. In this sense, you could almost say that the future of every coastal city in the world is being written today in the warming waters around Antarctica.

By far the sexiest and most-talked about research tool on this trip is a $4 million underwater robot — a.k.a. Autonomous Underwater Vehicle, or AUV — that will be deployed by a team from the University of Gothenburg in Sweden.

As soon as we boarded the Palmer in Punta Arenas, Chile, a few days ago, I heard much talk among the scientists and crew about the AUV, but I hadn’t had a look at it myself yet. So this morning, as we cruise in quiet seas through Chile’s Strait of Magellan, I ask Anna Wåhlin, a physical oceanographer who is the lead scientist for a team from the University of Gothenburg, if she would give me a tour of the AUV. Wåhlin happily agrees. After breakfast in the ship’s mess hall (fresh fruit, eggs, bacon, oatmeal — the National Science Foundation feeds its people well), I follow her through the bowels of the big icebreaker, past labs and computer rooms and a gym and even a sauna, through heavy watertight doors and up steel stairs, until we reach the rear of the main deck. Wåhlin, a 48 year-old mother of two, gives the impression of a scientist who has spent far more time in the wild than in the lab, with wind-burned cheeks, a heavy sweater and black mountaineering-style pants. (About half the scientists on this cruise are women, which shouldn’t be at all remarkable, but is.)

As we approach a big blue steel shipping container that is chained down outside on the deck, Wåhlin becomes almost giddy with a mix of excitement and worry. “I am not nervous right now,” she tells me, a little unconvincingly. “But I think I will be when we get to Antarctica.”

Wåhlin swings the container door open and steps inside, revealing a 22-foot long bright orange torpedo-like device. It looks less like a tool for ocean research than a weapon that James Bond might use to take down Dr. No.

“This is the Hugin,” Wåhlin announces.

Hugin, it turns out, is the brand name for this AUV, which was designed and built by a Swedish company called Kongsberg. It is named after a raven in Norse mythology that travels all over the world gathering information for the god Olin. When it is launched in Antarctica, the Hugin will travel deep beneath the sea ice and ice shelves, using a complex array of instruments to create what amounts to a 3-D image of the ocean and underbelly of Thwaites glacier, a dangerously unstable part of the West Antarctic ice sheet that we are exploring on this trip. (For more background about why Thwaites is the target of this mission, read my Rolling Stone piece, The Doomsday Glacier.)

Wåhlin shows me the 20 different sensors in the Hugin, from an acoustic doppler current profiler, which measures the velocity of ocean currents by tracking tiny particles in the water as they speed along, to a multibeam echo sounder, which allows precise measurement of depth and ocean bottom contour. Wåhlin points out the brains of the device, encapsulated in a titanium sphere near the front of the Hugin, as well as the sonar in the nose cone, which will (in theory) warn the device when it is about to run into something and allow it to take evasive action. For an oceanographer like Wåhlin, the Hugin is more than a cool toy — it’s one of the most sophisticated unmanned devices ever deployed for ocean research. Wåhlin points out that the Hugin was originally developed for defense purposes and the oil industry. “For the military, it can be useful to detect submarines,” she explains. “Oil companies use them to map the ocean bottom and inspect undersea pipelines. But this Hugin,” Wåhlin says proudly, “is the first one that has ever been adapted and deployed for scientific research.” Wåhlin and her team have even given their Hugin a name: Ran, after the Nordic goddess of the sea.

The Hugin is ideally suited to the kind of work scientists will be doing on this trip to Thwaites — because it is unmanned, it can be sent deep under the ice shelves, journeying as far as 300 kilometers from the ship and then (hopefully) returning to the ship like a well-trained dog with a newspaper full of the latest news in its mouth. If everything goes according to plan, Wåhlin hopes the data that the Hugin retrieves will give scientists a better understanding of how the Antarctic circumpolar current behaves at the glacier’s grounding line (the point where the glacier meets the edge of the continental shelf), as well as help answer vital questions like how much warm, deep ocean water is seeping beneath Thwaites glacier itself, causing it to melt or fracture from below.

That is the hope, anyway. As with any complex device, lots can go wrong. The way Hugin is designed, Wåhlin and her team program its route before launch. Once in the water, it’s on its own — completely autonomous. Either the Hugin will return 24 hours later with a treasure-trove of data, or it won’t (“ET, phone home!” Wåhlin jokes). Wåhlin and her team have successfully carried out 40 test missions in the waters around Norway and Sweden, but the underwater obstacles in those regions were well-known. “Antarctica is completely different,” say Wåhlin. “We know very little about the conditions on the sea floor, and what kind of obstacles it may run into along the way.” Wåhlin explains that the Hugin can detect undersea mountains or canyons with its sonar and is programmed to take emergency evasive action, but it’s still possible that it can get itself into trouble. “Despite all the sophisticated instruments, it’s quite stupid,” Wåhlin says. “It has a little artificial intelligence built into it, but not much. If it gets boxed into a corner, it won’t know what to do.” As Wåhlin says this, she looks at the Hugin with loving concern, the way one might look at an adventurous child.

As we step out of the container and close the door, Wåhlin tells me she is cautiously optimistic that the Hugin will deliver a view of what’s going on beneath Thwaites glacier that has never been seen by humans before, and which could help scientists better understand the near-term risk that Thwaites will collapse in the sea. Before they launch the Hugin in the wilds of Antarctica, however, Wåhlin and her team want to check everything out one more time.

February 1st, 8 a.m.

Wåhlin and her team are up early this morning, checking and double-checking the route they have programmed into the Hugin on a computer in one of the ship’s labs. Overnight, the Palmer maneuvered to a spot near the western entrance to the Strait of Magellan where Wåhlin and her team believe the water was deep enough (over 600 meters) to conduct a test run.

While Wåhlin stays in the lab, running through a system checklist for the Hugin, I stand out on the rear deck in the sunshine, watching the ship’s crew prepare to launch the vessel. After a half-hour delay thanks to the Windows operating system crashing on one of her computers, the bright orange Hugin, which weighs nearly two tons, is lifted into the blue waters of the Strait. It floats on the surface for a while, it’s chambers filling with water to achieve proper ballast, then the propeller spins and the Hugin slowly descends, disappearing from sight.

When I find Wåhlin in the lab a few minutes later, she has a big smile on her face and is visibly relieved. “The launch went very well,” she says. I ask her if she has any doubt the Hugin will return to the ship later in the day, as it is supposed to. “No, I think it will be fine. The Hugin will find its way back to us.”

For the next few hours, I stand on the rear deck of the ship with several members of Wåhlin’s team, scanning the sea, waiting. The sky turns an ominous gray, the wind starts to blow. The deck of the ship pitches and sways. And then suddenly, there it is — the bright orange Hugin bobbing in the waves, exactly where it is supposed to be.


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