The climate watchdogs of tomorrow

The climate watchdogs of tomorrow

Top image: Jellyfish thriving in the High Arctic Kongsfjorden in the middle of January. Photo: Geir Johnsen, UNIS/NTNU.

New underwater robot technology was tested in Svalbard this winter with amazing results. Scientists from UNIS, NTNU and California Polytechnic University spent 14 days in January testing out this technology in Ny-Ålesund. With these state-of-the-art underwater robots, the scientists have discovered that the Arctic Ocean is teeming with activity during the Polar night. This discovery will have major consequences for the future management policies in the High North.

25 March 2010
Text: Eva Therese Jenssen / UNIS

Norwegian and American scientists have developed technological solutions for Automated Unmanned vehicles (AUV); underwater robots that can perform different climatic measurements/sampling and record images along several hundred kilometers of ice-covered waters. This new technology can give answers to many questions about the activity in the Arctic Ocean in the dark season.

Inspection robot

Inspection robot (Crawler) with hyperspectral imager mapping the ocean floor of Kongsfjorden in January 2010 in total darkness, minus 1.6 degrees Celsius in sea-ice covered areas. Photo: Geir Johnsen, UNIS/NTNU.

The ocean is not sleeping
For a long time, it has been a universal “truth” that life in the Arctic Ocean goes into hibernation at the onset of the Polar night. The biological mechanisms in the ocean depth are dependant on light, and when it is dark 24/7, then all life must go into a winter lethargy – right?

Over the past couple of years, this “truth” has been refuted. According to data collected by sampling stations in some of the Svalbard fjords, we can today conclude that the activity in the ocean is quite higher than earlier presumed – and that the marine organisms in the water are exhibiting a great sensitivity in light changes, such as moonlight and northern lights, even if humans perceive it as “complete” darkness.

But these sampling stations can only collect samples at the locations they are rigged, and when large parts of the Polar ocean is covered by sea ice during winter, collecting more detailed samples over larger areas have been almost impossible. Until now.

Through a unique Norwegian-American research project a new type of underwater robot technology has been developed and tested in the ice-covered Svalbard waters – with great success.

It is UNIS and the Norwegian University of Science and Technology (NTNU), together with California Polytechnic State University and Rutgers University (New Jersey) that through the NORUS project have developed and tested new applications for AUVs, remotely operated underwater vehicles (ROV), and inspection robots (Crawlers).

Mark Moline, Chris Clark

Professors Mark Moline (left) and Chris Clark from California Polytechnic University, follow the data coming in from the underwater robots operating in Kongsfjorden. Photo: Eva Therese Jenssen/UNIS.

Environmental surveyors
The AUVs, ROVs and crawlers can revolutionize the environmental surveillance in the inhospitable Arctic oceans. These robots proved their worth during a 14 day long field campaign in Ny-Ålesund.

They performed both optical and acoustical measurements and collected samples at different depths in Kongsfjorden – and the preliminary results show that there is hectic activity in the ocean, despite darkness 24/7.

The REMUS robot has sensors that record ocean temperatures, salinity, and the amount of plankton over large transects and at various depths, among other things. The REMUS mapped over 50 kilometers in Kongsfjorden and collected data for the researchers.

The Iver 2 is another AUV which records temperature, salinity and density. This robot is smaller than the REMUS, and also more cost efficient in use. Both the REMUS and Iver 2 can operate beneath the sea ice and perform measurements. The robots also have cameras and video recording systems as to take images of the ocean floor or underneath the sea ice.

Comb jellyfish

The Arctic ocean is teeming with biological activity even in the pitch-black Polar night. Here a Comb jellyfish (Ctenophora) in Kongsfjorden. Photo: Geir Johnsen, UNIS/NTNU.

The ROVs can operate on the ocean floor and was used to collect samples of e.g. the high Arctic kelp Laminaria solidungula. This kelp species started photo synthesis as soon as it was collected from the dark ocean and exposed to a light source.

– They grow even in what we humans perceive as complete darkness, and this shows that they are very sensitive to light sources that we do not see, says Geir Johnsen, professor at NTNU and UNIS, and coordinator of the NORUS program.

Influencing future management policy
This robot technology enables researchers to investigate more thoroughly the high Arctic oceans in the Polar night and will produce invaluable information about the biological diversity and activity in these waters. This will have consequences for the management policy in the High North, especially in relation to future petroleum activity in the Barents Sea.

It is expected that the activity in the Arctic oceans will increase in the coming years. A shrinking ice coverage opens up for new freight corridors across the Arctic for ships, and the oil industry is highly interested in exploring these waters for possible oil- and gas production.

– This technology opens up new avenues for science and provides new knowledge about the winter status in the ocean, which in turn will influence the future management policy, says Jørgen Berge, professor in marine biology at UNIS and Akvaplan-niva.

– These propeller-driven underwater robots give us a completely different view of the biological system, than on-site measurements from boats or stationary underwater rigs can provide, says Berge.

According to Berge, the robots will not be hindered by weather conditions or varying amounts of sea ice, and they have sensors that can explore hitherto unknown processes and phenomenon in the ocean.

Jørgen Berge

UNIS professor Jørgen Berge launching IVER-AUV for key environmental studies in the Polar night. Photo: Geir Johnsen, UNIS/NTNU.

Large activity in complete darkness
– We have documented, among other things, great activity of bioluminescence, in addition to huge biological activity in the ocean surface, water columns and at the ocean floor in Kongsfjorden, says Johnsen.
– We also documented huge amounts of crayfish (Crustacea) in this fjord, and as they are predatory species, this find indicates that the food supply must be plenty at this time of year, says Berge and Johnsen.

Observations of a number of sea birds in the fjord were also done.

– The presence of the birds indicates that there must be enough food in the ocean. However, birds are visual predators, so how do they manage to find food in the ocean when it is complete darkness? This is a phenomenon that must be investigated further, says Johnsen.

Deployed all over the world
The new underwater robot technology will be tested out all over the world in order to see what capacity this new technology has.

– The field campaign in Ny-Ålesund was THE test of this technology under the harshest conditions imaginable. We have now established that these robots function in ice cold and ice covered oceans. They can now be deployed all over the world so that we can get an accurate report on the condition of the ocean environment throughout all seasons, says Johnsen.

During this spring the Norwegian-American research group will conduct a longer cruise around Svalbard, and use this technology to collect data on the environmental status in the light season.

The Polar night expedition is a part of the NORUS program: “Technology Development for Marine Monitoring and Ocean Observation”: A North America-Norway educational program. NORUS is supported by the Norwegian Centre for International Cooperation in Higher Education; the Svalbard Environmental Fund, Statoil, the U.S. National Science Foundation and National Geographic.

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