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A team of scientists in Antarctica is testing a drone that could help climate research


Antarctica's vast landscape presents quite a challenge for scientists. Sheets of ice cloak the terrain, and determining what that terrain looks like is key to climate research, namely how quickly the ice might melt. Now a team with the British Antarctic Survey is testing a drone to survey Antarctica. We're joined now by engineer Rebecca Toomey and scientist Tom Jordan at the Rothera Research Station in Antarctica. Welcome.

REBECCA TOOMEY: Thank you very much for having us.

TOM JORDAN: Thank you.

ELLIOTT: First, I have to ask, what's it like there? What's it like living and working in Antarctica?

JORDAN: Living at Rothera is actually remarkably comfortable. Although we're a long way from anywhere, we're on a research station, so there's about 120 people here. It's a relatively easy place to work compared with the Antarctic field, where you might be out in a tent.

ELLIOTT: Rebecca, what is it like there today?

TOOMEY: Oh, I'm just looking out the window at the moment, and it's basically really, really foggy, all white. And there's snow coming down. It looks, like, quite dramatic. But as Tom said, living here in Rothera is - you tend to forget that you're so far away from the mainland, and it's actually all right. I can see outside of the window here the runway where we're going to be operating the drone. So it's a bit like living at an airfield.

ELLIOTT: So Tom Jordan, will you give us a better sense of why mapping this terrain is so difficult? And I gather you've got parts of maps where you've just put question marks?

JORDAN: Yeah, that's really true. The scale of the continent is the thing that makes it so difficult. So there are research stations around the coast predominantly, but the interior is just empty, aside from maybe one like the South Pole station, right in the sort of center, and a couple of other stations. So these huge distances make it very difficult to get into the interior and make observations. And a lot of the observations that we want to make, you can only actually make them from aircraft.

So you need to be able to get an aircraft into the middle of this continent. So a typical field season I did a few years back, we had to fly for two days in a small twin-engine aircraft just to get from Rothera research station into the field location where we were working. So that's - sort of just the scale of it makes it really, really hard to make the measurements.

ELLIOTT: Rebecca Toomey, let's talk a little bit about how the drone works instead of being in an airplane. And what is it like for you to pilot it remotely?

TOOMEY: Yes. So the difference, I guess, is that because it doesn't carry a human on board, it's basically working fully autonomously. We have a really sophisticated autopilot technology fitted, which allows me to basically sit in a comfortable office and remotely control and monitor the aircraft. The location where I'm at doesn't necessarily need to be in Rothera. There's plan in the future to have the operation basically completely remotely back from the U.K., but it's not very different from operating it anywhere else, really, in terms of monitoring the autopilot while the aircraft is in flight.

ELLIOTT: Tom, in terms of climate research, explain to us how understanding what's beneath the ice helps you determine how quickly it's melting.

JORDAN: So the base of the ice sheet is one of the factors that controls how fast the ice flows. So if you imagine the ice is flowing over really soft, smooth sediment, it can flow much more easily because there's less friction, and that mud sort of acts as a lubricant, whereas if it's flying over really rugged terrain and you've got sort of really spiky, rough bed underneath, that actually slows down and adds more friction to the base of the ice. And those two factors are some of the things that we're looking with the maps we're making.

But also, is the ice linked through to the ocean? So if the ice is linked through to the ocean, the warming ocean water can actually get right up to the ice front and melt the ice and allow it to lift up at the edges. And we're looking for situations which could be vulnerable to this type of retreat and then trying to assess, is all of Antarctica vulnerable to this retreat or are only localized areas?

ELLIOTT: OK. So help my brain here. If you're looking from a drone down on the landscape, you're just looking for landscape formations that tell you what might be going on underneath?

JORDAN: So that's the - one of the really good bits of kit that we've got on the drone we've fitted this year. It's an ice-penetrating radar.


JORDAN: So you look out of your aircraft window now, and you'll see a flat, white plane. It's just ice. You can't see anything. But the radar can see through the ice, and it can see the shape of the valleys and the mountains underneath the ice. It's firing out these pulses of radio waves and then effectively listening for the echoes bouncing off the bed.

ELLIOTT: I wonder if you guys are just in awe that you're able to do this.

JORDAN: It's a really cool piece of technology that we're being able to deploy this. And, I mean, also just being down here in Antarctica is amazing. But just to see the drone fly off on its own for a trip that's over an hour long over the horizon - that's just really, really crazy and very cool.

ELLIOTT: Well, thanks so much. Rebecca Toomey and Tom Jordan are with the British Antarctic Survey down in Antarctica now. Thank you for being with us.

JORDAN: Thank you.

TOOMEY: Thank you very much for having us. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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