Year/Course: 2015-2016, Lent 2016

Contact: Dr.Beatrix Schlarb-Ridley, British Antarctic Survey
Mentor: Dr. Julian White

The British Antarctic Survey is a community of highly talented scientists, technologists, and engineers working across a wide variety of disciplines; from space physics through to glaciers and the deep ocean. It is a holistic approach to polar science. Their unifying focus is to understand what makes the Polar Regions tick; both Arctic and Antarctic.

This integrated approach is increasingly important as climate change has a disproportionate impact on the Polar Regions. For example the Arctic has been described as a barometer for the health of the global environment. However it is a region in a state of flux – long-term temperature records have reveled that the Arctic has warmed twice as fast as the global average. This ‘Arctic amplification’ of global warming has led to major and quantifiable changes across the region from changing atmospheric circulation patterns and the melting of glaciers and ice sheets, through to the thawing of permafrost and the changing of the physical environment in, on, and above the Arctic Ocean. Possibly the most dramatic change has been the loss of about half the summer sea ice in only a few decades.

Given the harshness of the environment, combined with the difficulties and costs associated with accessing these regions, technology can play a key role in better understanding this important region of the world. A good illustration would be the development of technology to monitor ocean waves. Ocean waves, through intensive storms, can cause significant damage to our infrastructure here in the UK and as a result significant effort is placed on monitoring and predicting ocean waves. However waves also break up the sea ice into small pieces, which in turn enables the ice to melt faster. Consequently understanding waves and sea ice is intrinsically linked to understanding why the summer Arctic sea ice is melting so fast.

However you cannot just use technology that has been developed for the ‘warmer’ regions of the world; it just will not work in the Polar Regions! There are many obstacles to overcome. For example the intense cold and the extreme forces found within sea ice (it can crush ships!) are just a couple of examples. Through the combined effort of scientists and engineers some of these risks can be minimised. That is exactly what we have done with the development of the wavebuoy. In addition to its key scientific functions (ice drift and wave measurements) it is designed to operate in severe cold, to ‘pop up’ when the forces within the sea ice increase too much, to recharge its batteries when the sun is up, and send back a photo of its surrounding environment every six hours. This design has proved to be very successful and consequently these systems are increasingly being deployed in many regions of the Arctic and now the Antarctic. But there is no reason why these systems cannot be used in all the oceans of the world.

The questions for the i-Team include who might be interested in knowing about ice movements, and how the ice sheets change over time, and also where that might be used around the world. In addition, the team will explore whether the buoys could be used in other contexts as a useful research and environmental data platform.