Caltech research, technology reveal Antarctic ice-melt info

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California Institute of Technology researchers and a fleet of specially designed robots are discovering more information about how and why ice is melting in Antarctica. (KABC)

California Institute of Technology researchers and a fleet of specially designed robots are discovering more information about how and why ice is melting in Antarctica.

"A lot of studies have identified that this ice is melting, but we have a really hard time constraining what the rate at which that ice will be lost," said Dr. Andrew Thompson, a Cal Tech assistant professor of environmental science and engineering.

Thompson recently traveled to Antarctica with new technology to study the ocean in a brand new way: Submersible ocean gliders can go up and down in the water for months at a time.

"What we can do with the gliders is actually put them in the water, come back home and communicate with them on a day-to-day basis while we're not actually out at sea," said Thompson.

They come up for air every four to five hours, sending Thompson text messages with real-time data.

"Usually they're just pinging you to say 'Hey, I'm up here at the surface, everything is going OK,'" said Thompson.

Thompson discovered that water in Antarctica is being heated by eddies.

Thompson compares how eddies work to milk, coffee and a spoon: When you pour the milk into the coffee, the spoon allows you to mix it in more effectively -- just like eddies allow heat to be mixed in more effectively.

"They mix heat around," said Thompson. "Because they swirl around, they can also trap heat right at their core."

Why does this matter? Thompson says melting ice caps in Antarctica contribute to the possibility of rising sea levels and dramatically different weather patterns here.

"You can think of the ocean as a big bathtub, and where it gets filled is from this water around Antarctica," said Thompson. "So although we're looking at a very specific region around Antarctica, it really impacts the entire ocean circulation."


Related Topics:
scienceCaltechu.s. & worldenvironmentPasadena
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