Boaty McBoatface

Boaty McBoatface completes first mission

Image credit: NERC

An autonomous research submarine, Boaty McBoatface, has successfully completed its first polar mission, gathering data near the ocean floor to help scientists map the distribution of heat in the deep ocean between Antarctica and the Atlantic Ocean.

Boaty had previously completed test dives, although this was its first full scientific expedition. It recorded high-quality measurements of temperature, salt concentration, current and turbulence.

It completed three dives of up to 4,000m below the surface to navigate the Orkney Passage, a narrow gap in the ocean floor ridge near the Antarctic Peninsula. This is an important “valve” in the system of circulation which helps to redistribute heat throughout the oceans and regulate the Earth’s climate.

As wind speeds change, this affects the currents carrying water from Antarctica to the Atlantic Ocean. In turn, this affects how much heat is mixed into the currents. Evidence suggests that this flow of water may be warming, which could cause the water to expand and raise the surface of the ocean.

“Our goal is to learn enough about these convoluted processes to represent them [for the first time] in the models that scientists use to predict how our climate will evolve over the 21st century and beyond,” said Professor Alberto Naveira Garabato of the University of Southampton, who led the project.

“We have been able to collect massive amounts of data that we have never been able to capture before due to the way Boaty moves underwater. Up until now we have only been able to take measurements from a fixed point, but now we can obtain a much more detailed picture of what is happening in this very important underwater landscape.”

Boaty is a bright yellow autonomous underwater vehicle, capable of travelling under ice and reaching depths of 6,000m below the surface. It transmits data to researchers via radio signal.

During one dive, Boaty became tangled with a swarm of krill, confusing its echo sounders; the swarm was so dense it appeared as though Boaty was approaching the seabed, and it returned to the surface.

For this mission, Boaty was launched from the Royal Research Ship (RRS) James Clark Ross, although it will eventually be dispatched from RRS David Attenborough, the enormous new polar research vessel currently under construction.

The Natural Environment Research Council asked members of the public for suggestions and votes for a name for this £200m research ship, with RRS Boaty McBoatface as the clear winner. Other popular suggestions included RRS Boat, RRS Pingu, RRS Usain Boat and RRS I Like Big Boats & I Cannot Lie. The decision was made, however, to ignore the public vote and instead name the ship after broadcaster Sir David Attenborough.

This led to a public debate about the appropriateness of running a “Name Our Ship” poll and ignoring the winning suggestion, and was discussed in a House of Lords Science and Technology Committee inquiry into science communication.

Jo Johnson MP, the Universities and Science Minister, later announced that an autonomous submarine on board the vessel would be named Boaty McBoatface.

“Fresh from its maiden voyage, Boaty is already delivering new insight into some of the coldest ocean waters on Earth, giving scientists a greater understanding of changes in the Antarctic region and shaping a global effort to tackle climate change,” said Johnson.

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