Bluff, New Zealand
When a Saildrone uncrewed surface vehicle (USV) circumnavigated Antarctica in 2019, it marked a technological triumph over some of the most extreme marine conditions on Earth. The Southern Ocean has long been thought to play a significant role in the uptake of CO2 from the atmosphere, however previous assumptions were made based on ship-based data, which are scarce in time and space given the harsh ocean conditions. The 196-day mission was launched from Bluff, New Zealand, on January 19, 2019, returning to the same port on August 3 after sailing over 11,879 nautical miles (13,670 miles or 22,000 km) around Antarctica.
Saildrone and the 1851 Trust partnered to develop a series of STEM lesson plans rooted in science, technology, engineering, and math, available to teachers free of charge. Click to access the lesson plans.
Carrying an instrument developed by NOAA to measure carbon fluxes very precisely, the saildrone provided important new data on the rates of carbon uptake in the Southern Ocean.
Preliminary results suggest observed CO2 outgassing during winter months in the same region as previously measured by Argo floats.
The mission was recognized with the 2020 Ron Brown Excellence in Innovation Award. The award stated that the public-private partnership between NOAA's Pacific Marine Environmental Laboratory and Saildrone "demonstrated the deep scientific reach of a Federal research lab, and the ability of American industry to manufacture, test, and pilot world-class USVs."
"One of our largest ‘blind spots' in terms of our climate knowledge and its future prediction lies in the Southern Ocean. This is mostly due to the serious lack of observations, in particular in winter, in this remote and harsh environment. This leads to a poor understanding of how these polar oceans function. These exciting, high-resolution observations from Saildrone during its circumnavigation of the Antarctic provide valuable ground-based data sets for scientists to understand the Southern Ocean better and evaluate the models we use to predict weather and climate."
Sebastiaan Swart, co-chair of the Southern Ocean Observing System (SOOS)
During the mission, the vehicle survived freezing temperatures, 50-foot (15 m) waves, 80 mph (130 km/h) winds, and collisions with giant icebergs.