Robots are readied to study Antarctic ice shelves

Antarctic robot research team
Members of the research team stand on the deck of the R/V Robertson with two Seaglider drones on the left, plus a drone and a float on the right. The team includes UW’s Jason Gobat, Craig Lee, Knut Christianson and James Girton, plus Spencer Reeder of Paul G. Allen Philanthropies. (GeekWire Photo / Alan Boyle)

Researchers from the University of Washington and Columbia University are getting ready for an unprecedented months-long campaign to study Antarctica’s ice shelves from the ocean below, with backing from billionaire philanthropist Paul Allen.

The results are expected to lead to a better understanding of how ice retreats, and how climate change could affect the loss of polar ice sheets and the resulting rise in sea levels.

It’s a high-risk mission — but in this case, robots, not humans, are taking the risk.

“All of these instruments could be lost underneath the ice shelf,” said Spencer Reeder, director of climate and energy for Paul G. Allen Philanthropies.

Reeder said that’s a big reason why Allen, one of Microsoft’s co-founders, is funding the expedition to the tune of just under $2 million. The risks are too high for the traditional funders of polar research, but Allen’s backing could help UW’s Applied Physics Laboratory prove that its devices can do the job.

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By Alan Boyle

Mastermind of Cosmic Log, contributing editor at GeekWire, author of "The Case for Pluto: How a Little Planet Made a Big Difference," president of the Council for the Advancement of Science Writing. Check out "About Alan Boyle" for more fun facts.

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