Undersea Robots Exploring Ice-Covered Oceans May Hold The Key To Climate Change

Nereus, a remotely operated vehicle, is set to travel to some of the deepest and coldest parts of the sea to find out exactly how our aquatic environments are changing–and how to fix it.


Humans have stepped foot on the moon more times than we’ve been to the deepest floors of our oceans. As science looks to survey new species, prospect minerals, and monitor how climate change is altering the depths, engineers need to find new ways to get us there, or at least send our mechanical eyes and ears.

Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI) has built Nereus (rhymes with “serious”) to get us there. A remotely operated vehicle (ROV) that can hit 11,000 meters underwater–that’s almost twice the height of Everest–without any trouble, Nereus is a test bed for a new suite of technologies shedding ROVs clunky, ship-tethered past.

Nereus is among a new class of underwater robotic vehicles being
designed to autonomously explore some of the harshest environments in
our oceans and better understand our atmosphere. The ROV menagerie is
being operated by WHOI, NOAA
and a handful of other institutions, to allow us to conduct long-term
science in harsh undersea and ice-covered environments such as the
waters around Antarctica and Greenland, whose changes in climate and sea
level are most acute.

Powered by 3,000 lithium-ion batteries, the ROV can autonomously map underwater landscapes then return safely to the research ship under its own power. For more complex missions, where two-way communication is needed, a slender fiber-optic cable the diameter of a human hair allows Nereus to find its target and use a seven-foot hydraulic arm, as well as other sensors, to collect samples. Last year, an experimental system merging acoustics and optics demonstrated that Nereus can cut the cord completely and still communicate with the surface.

Nereus has already navigated one of the deepest parts of the ocean, the Challenger Deep. It will soon be turned toward the cold and dark places under the Arctic ice, to learn more about how the chemistry of those deep waters are changing and, perhaps, what we can do to forestall that change.

[Image: Wikipedia]


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About the author

Michael is a science journalist and co-founder of Publet: a platform to build digital publications that work on every device with analytics that drive the bottom line. He writes for FastCompany, The Economist, Foreign Policy and others on science, economics, and the environment. His favorite topics are wicked problems -- and discoveries such as how dung beetles rely on the light of the Milky Way to navigate (and all that says about the human condition on Earth)