A submersible studying the underneath of the so-called "doomsday glacier" in Antarctica has gone missing during its latest expedition.
The uncrewed underwater vehicle (AUV) named Ran uses sensors to investigate the surrounding water, during sometimes long explorations underneath ice. On its latest trip to the Thwaites Glacier – sometimes known as the doomsday glacier as it could potentially raise the world's sea levels by several meters if it melts – the submersible dove underneath the 200–500 meter (650-1600 feet) thick ice.
“This was the second time we took Ran to Thwaites Glacier to document the area under the ice," Anna Wåhlin, Professor in the Department of Marine Sciences at the University of Gothenburg, said in a statement.
"Thanks to Ran, we became the first researchers in the world to enter Thwaites in 2019, and during the current expedition we have visited the same area again. Even if you see melting and movements in the ice from satellite data, from Ran we get close-ups of the underside of the ice and information about exactly which mechanisms are behind the melting."
During dives, the submersible does not have constant contact with the researchers operating it. Instead, the AUV follows a pre-programmed route, and uses an advanced navigation system to find its way back from underneath the ice to open water. After several successful dives underneath the ice in January, however, during one trip Ran failed to appear at the rendezvous point. Despite searches with acoustic equipment, drones, and helicopters, the team has been unable to locate Ran since.
“It’s a bit like looking for a needle in a haystack, but without even knowing where the haystack is," Wåhlin said. "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."
The team believes this is likely sadly the end for Ran, though they note it is a better end for the submersible than aging and gathering dust in a garage. They now plan on replacing the submersible, and continuing its important research.