Saturday, February 13, 2010

Robot Subs to Mapping Arctic Sea Floor

Two robot submarines will plunge into the Arctic next month in an effort to help Canada stake a claim to a large swath of potentially mineral-rich seafloor in the polar region. According to Larry Mayer, chief scientist of the mission, apart from the land claims, the missions have scientific significance. The Arctic maps could also have important ramifications with respect to climate modelling and climate change because the global distribution of heat is controlled by ocean currents. Where heat flows is often controlled by the sea floor.

Mapping more of the Arctic basin has strategic benefits as well, according to its proponents. "From the Navy's perspective, bottom surveys support safety of navigation for submarines and for surface ships in areas where the water becomes shallow," said Capt. Tim Galludet, the deputy director for the Navy's Task Force Climate Change.

So far, much of the Arctic deep remains a mystery and is likely to stay that way for the foreseeable future since exploration is costly and difficult. About five percent of the Arctic floor has been mapped with modern sonar technology, notes Rear Adm. David Titley, the Navy's official oceanographer and head of its Task Force Climate Change.

Data gathered by the yellow torpedo-shaped probes will become part of Canada's bid to prove its continental slope stretches far beyond the 200-nautical-mile territorial limit. The matter will be decided by a U.N. panel overseeing claims under the 28-year-old Convention on the Law of the Sea.
Canada, the United States, Russia, Denmark and Norway are involved in a scrum over Arctic bottomland and long-frozen shipping lanes that have started to thaw as global temperatures rise. With scientists predicting that Arctic summers may be ice-free by the 2030s, the five nations have mounted studies they hope will help expand their territories.

The autonomous underwater vehicle (AUV) mission next month will expand that effort. The two 20-foot vehicles will be outfitted with specialised echo-sounder equipment intended to help scientists create a three-dimensional map of underwater peaks and valleys. The AUVs can continuously collect data for about 250 miles at a time, potentially creating continuous images of the expedition's 2,500 or so miles.

“But AUV technology is far from a sure thing in the Arctic. If there is a problem with an AUV in a standard mission, the vehicle can resurface, put up an antenna and call for help,” said James Ferguson, vice president of International Submarine Engineering, which built the AUVs. “The subs are programmed to return to a home base on a stable ice floe every three days for a battery charge. But the Arctic's howling winds can move floating ice about a mile a day, and while AUVs are outfitted with a homing beacon, it is not foolproof,” Ferguson added.

However, Pentagon reiterated its support for the treaty in its defence strategy road map, stating that signing on would support cooperative engagement in the Arctic. It noted that such involvement could promote a balanced approach to improving human and environmental security in the region.


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