scorecardThere's another missing submersible: A $3.6 million vessel mysteriously disappeared near Antarctica's 'Doomsday Glacier'
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There's another missing submersible: A $3.6 million vessel mysteriously disappeared near Antarctica's 'Doomsday Glacier'

Ellyn Lapointe   

There's another missing submersible: A $3.6 million vessel mysteriously disappeared near Antarctica's 'Doomsday Glacier'
LifeScience3 min read
  • An uncrewed submersible that belongs to the University of Gothenburg disappeared in Antarctica.
  • The submersible was exploring the Thwaites Glacier to study its potential effects on sea-level rise.

A submersible, named Ran, disappeared last month after diving under Antarctica. The 23-foot-long instrument was just one of three scientific submersibles of its kind.

Unlike the Titan submersible, which imploded with five passengers on board upon descent to explore the Titanic wreck, Ran was uncrewed when it mysteriously vanished.

Ran's disappearance is a tragic loss for climate change research as scientists were using the autonomous machine to study the melting activity of Thwaites Glacier, also known as the "Doomsday Glacier."

It's also a loss for the University of Gothenburg, which purchased Ran for 38 million Swedish Krona, about $3.6 million in USD, in 2015, the university reported in a press release.

"This was the second time we took Ran to Thwaites Glacier to document the area under the ice," Anna Wåhlin, project lead and professor of physical oceanography at the University of Gothenburg, said in the press release.

Investigating the 'Doomsday Glacier'

Ran was a rare type of sub that enabled researchers to investigate depths that were previously considered unreachable.

It could dive hundreds of feet underwater to explore the underbellies of glaciers and produce detailed maps of their shape to help scientists study glacial melting due to climate change.

"We got the first successful maps two years ago, and the feeling was just, wow, this is what it actually looks like. It had been a black box before," Wåhlin told Business Insider.

These maps help researchers gather information about the mechanisms behind melting.

That's why Wåhlin and her team chose Ran to check out Thwaites Glacier because it's actively melting.

Thwaites owes its ominous nickname "Doomsday Glacier" in part to its massive size. It's the widest glacier on Earth, measuring approximately 80 miles across, and its melting currently contributes to about 4% of global sea-level rise.

If it were to collapse entirely, global sea levels would increase by a whopping 25 inches.

Unlike other remotely operated uncrewed underwater vehicles, Ran navigates these depths autonomously. Its route is programmed in advance and it uses a navigation system to find its way back to the surface after completing a dive.

On its most recent mission, Ran was collecting close-up imaging and data of the Thwaites' underside when the researchers lost contact. It never resurfaced at its pre-programmed return point.

"We arrived at the agreed meeting point and it was just dead silent," Wåhlin told BI. "We understood immediately that there was a problem."

A needle in a haystack

The research team searched for Ran using acoustic search equipment, helicopters, and drones. But after 48 hours, they called off the search.

"It's a bit like looking for a needle in a haystack, but without even knowing where the haystack is," Wåhlin said in the press release. "At this point, Ran's batteries are dead. All we know is that something unexpected happened under the ice. We suspect it ran into trouble, and then something prevented it from getting out."

At this time, all search efforts have been called off, Louise Newman, ship manager for the University of Gothenburg, told BI via email.

"The Korean vessel IB Aaron has left the region and there is no chance for any further search. Unfortunately, it is gone," Newman wrote.

The University's Department of Marine Sciences hopes to eventually replace Ran and continue their expeditions at Thwaites.

With Ran, Wåhlin and her collegues became the first researchers in the world to enter Thwaites back in 2019.

"Some people might think we are being reckless with such valuable equipment. But in my opinion, all researchers sign up for high risks when they do things no one has done before," Wåhlin told BI.

"The job of science is to move humanity forward, and someone has to take the first step. There's always a big risk in the first steps."




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