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NPS Researcher Uses UAVs to Better Understand Antarctic Environment
Photo Provided by Lettie Roach of the New Zealand
National Institute of Water and Atmospheric Research

NPS Researcher Uses UAVs to Better Understand Antarctic Environment

By MC2 Michael Ehrlich

NPS Research Professor Peter Guest flies an unmanned aerial vehicle over the Ross Sea, south of the Antarctic Circle, during a recent research expedition. Among a team of scientists from several institutions, Guest is using unmanned systems to better understand Antarctica’s unique environment through a program supported by NPS’ Consortium for Robotics and Unmanned Systems Education and Research (CRUSER) and the National Science Foundation.

Guest’s work is directly related to understanding atmospheric micro-observations, using UAVs to better detect and predict electromagnetic wave propagation. He says the team’s efforts were frequently challenged by the ever-changing and often extreme conditions of Earth’s southern polar region.

“This day was relatively pleasant with sunny skies, light winds and temperatures around 5 degrees,” said Guest. “Later, in Terra Nova Bay, we encountered katabatic winds with sustained 66 mph winds for several days, at times going as high as 79 mph with temperatures as low as -5 degrees.”

Guest says these extreme katabatic winds, which progress from high to low elevations, create such extreme conditions, the team was unable to fly their UAVs. They were, however, still able to gather data during these high winds, with interesting results.

“We did manage to launch several weather balloons,” continued Guest. “These high winds push the sea ice away from the shore, creating areas of open water called polynyas. These polynyas are called ‘ice factories’ because the exposed water loses tremendous amounts of heat, which causes large amounts of sea ice to form as it is swept downwind.

“The salt rejected from the ice formation creates the heaviest ocean water in the world, which allows it to sink to the bottom, where it is circulated throughout all of Earth’s oceans as ‘Antarctic Bottom Water.’  We are studying the structure of the katabatic winds and how they interact with the ocean surface and atmospheric boundary layer.”

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