Povl Abrahamsen, British Antarctic Survey
Do you remember Boaty McBoatface? In the years when the designation of a snafu research vessel made international headlines, Boaty gained important data on the effects of climate change in the deep sea.
The results of Boaty's first mission are now available – and they shed light on the effects of climate change on the sea level as Antarctica winds increase.
But before we go into what Boaty found, let's remember how it came here.
Already in 2016, the British Research Council for Natural Environment asked the public for the designation of a new polar exploration ship. Shackleton, Endeavor and Falcon were among the contenders, as NPR reported at the time. The internet, however, had a different idea. Voters in the online poll have overwhelmingly voted in favor of "Boaty McBoatface."
The then British Minister of Science, Jo Johnson, vetoed the choice of peoples and said the ship needed a name that was "more fitting". The ship was eventually named after the well-known natural historian Sir David Attenborough.
However, the council praised the extraordinary power of the Internet by naming a smaller, more modest ship called Boaty McBoatface. And the autonomous yellow submarine has a very successful maiden voyage behind it.
"It was the first mission and brought back an incredible wealth of data," said oceanographer Eleanor Frajka-Williams of Great Britain. In April 2017, Frajka-Williams and Other researchers are using the submarine to take deep-sea measurements near the Antarctic. Their findings were published this week in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences .
"In recent decades, the winds over the Antarctic Ocean have increased due to the hole in the ozone layer over the Antarctic and Antarctic increase in greenhouse gases," the researchers said in a statement.
They wanted to see how these stronger winds on the surface affected the environment well below the waves – and if this deep-sea activity contributed to sea-level rise.  So they sent Boaty into underwater valleys and traveled at depths of up to 4,000 meters. Boaty's longest journey took three days and lasted 180 km or more than 110 miles.
"Turbulence and the properties of the ocean – temperature and salinity – were measured near the seafloor, and it is a particularly unique tool because we can use it to create a spatial picture," says Frajka -Williams.
And the data is much more detailed than previous measurements, she says. This was done by lowering instruments from a ship, then moving the vessel and re-measuring.
The stronger winds in the Antarctic contribute to stronger currents, says Frajka-Williams. This in turn leads to more turbulence deep under the sea.
Boaty has shown a hitherto unknown path, in which the water is heated by this mixing over large areas, she said. Usually, deeper, colder water mixes with shallower, warmer water in the ocean – think of huge amounts of water moving up and down.
The measurements of the small submarine, however, show that cold water mixes with warm water depths – more of a horizontal type of flow.
"This was the unique new process of quickly exchanging water for cold and heat and then distributing the effect of different water properties over a larger area," says Frajka-Williams. And this kind of fast stirring is "much more efficient than it would otherwise have been for mixing and heating".
Water temperature is important because warm water takes up more space than cold water, so warmer water in the depths of the ocean would lead to higher sea levels.
"The resulting warming of the seabed contributes significantly to sea-level rise," say the researchers. "However, the mechanism uncovered by Boaty is not integrated into current models to predict the impact of increasing global temperatures on our oceans."
Frajka-Williams hopes that this will lead scientists to find a way to interweave the mechanism they have in future climate models.
And the fact that the measurements were done by a submarine with a great name was just the icing on the cake. "I thought it was funny," she says. "It was great, too, because my kids were also a little more interested in it."