Scientists use a range of techniques—from satellite observations to drilling holes—to measure sea ice thickness. Usually, such efforts look down at the sea floor. But, by equipping an underwater drone with upward-looking sonar, researchers were able to create the first high-resolution 3D maps of Antarctic sea ice.

This video footage shows the 6.5-foot-long SeaBED autonomous underwater vehicle (AUV) being deployed and then slowly gathering data that was used to create the maps. The scientists hope that their work will step up the pace of research in the polar regions aimed at understanding the dramatic sea ice changes in the context of climate change.

"The AUV missions have given us a real insight into the nature of Antarctic sea ice—like looking through a microscope, says Jeremy Wilkinson from the British Antarctic Survey. “We can now measure ice in far greater detail and were excited to measure ice up to 17 meters [56 feet] thick."

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The results of the study have just been published in the journal Nature Geoscience.

Image and video: Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution