Boaty McBoatface Just Helped Solve a Deep-Sea Mystery


The internet was a purer place in 2016, and there’s no more perfect distillation of that truth than the spontaneous, crowdsourced effort to name a £200 million state-of-the-art research vessel Boaty McBoatface. The British government eventually decided to go with the more stately RRS Sir David Attenborough, but it offered the public an olive branch by naming an autonomous sub Boaty McBoatface. And it brings me great joy to take a break from the hellscape that is the internet in 2019 and revisit Boaty the sub, which recently did some serious sciencing around Antarctica.

The results of Boaty’s autonomous explorations are the subject of a new paper published Monday in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. To be frank, the methods and results are esoteric. All of about 10 people would probably care about this research if it weren’t for Boaty McBoatface being involved. If there’s a lesson to take away here for scientists and research institutions, it’s that involving the public in seemingly trivial decisions can yield a greater interest in science.

Boaty McBoatface was deployed to help scientists solve the mystery of what’s going on in the abyss of the Weddell Sea, which sits sandwiched between the Antarctic Peninsula and East Antarctica. The sea is home to a huge glug of Antarctic Bottom Water, a pool of icy cold, salty water that’s part of the ocean conveyor belt. Scientists have known this water can rise as it jostles its way along the jagged ocean floor, but the mechanisms for how it mixes with the warmer water above it have eluded researchers.

Scientists studying the vast, remote waters encircling Antarctica frequently enlist the help of…

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Here’s where Boaty (or should it be McBoatface?) comes in during a 2017 research cruise to the region. The autonomous sub dove more than 13,100 feet (4,000 meters) below the ocean surface, skirting the rough floor of the Weddell Sea. The sub used an echo sounder to navigate about 110 miles (180 kilometers) of the seafloor without running into any of the peaks that rise from it, taking measurements of the water currents above and below its trajectory.

The results show that a hitherto unseen force was helping create greater mixing of the the warmer middle and cooler bottom waters. The study explains that “deep-ocean waters are rapidly laundered through intensified near-boundary turbulence and boundary-interior exchange” In plain English, that roughly translates to there’s more churning of water where the layers of water meet, stirring them up. In the press release announcing the findings, the British Antarctic Survey attributes this newfound turbulence to rougher surface winds, which have become more fierce due to changes in both the ozone hole and climate change in recent years.

All this matters to scientists because they can include this new mixing mechanism in models to refine sea level rise estimates as more warm water gets transported away from Antarctica. That’s great, but the main reason most people are invested in this is clearly Boaty McBoatface. I’m not saying let the public name everything, but it seems like one hell of a way to get folks engaged in serious science. Or even riding the ferry.