Rutgers Researchers Collect Data from Antarctica in Real Time

With underwater robots, Rutgers researchers are able to determine how the environment affects penguins in Antarctica.

By Lauren Wanko

At a lab in New Brunswick, a team of Rutgers University researchers collects data from Antarctica in real time. The information comes from gliders. The underwater robots are part of a project to determine how water properties and surface currents can affect penguin foraging at Palmer Station.

“Penguins are important down there because they are a major part of the food web, they feed on krill and they’re fed upon by other organisms like leopard seals. And in recent years, recent decades the Adelie penguins have actually decreased in the Palmer region,” said Rutgers University Assistant Research Professor Grace Saba.

Rutgers, along with other universities, deployed five gliders around Palmer Station, one of the country’s research stations in Antarctic. The gliders move slowly underwater, constantly collecting data like temperature and salinity.

“They are made to be blasted neutrally buoyant in the water. They suck a little bit of water in the nose, that actually makes them stink through the water column, collect all its data. Then it pushes that water back out with a pump, then it rises back through the water column,” said Rutgers University Post Doctoral Research Associate Travis Miles.

There’s a satellite phone and GPS antenna in the tail. When it hits the surface, the glider — which is operated remotely by the New Jersey team — calls in to Rutgers with the data, which will ultimately help the team determine the ideal water properties penguins need to thrive in the area. Rutgers and other universities also deploy the gliders along the East Coast, including New Jersey, where the team samples underneath storms.

“So places you can’t take boats, places you can’t get data and we get oceanographic data that actually helps us improve forecast models, so oceanographic forecast models which then help atmospheric forecast models,” said Miles.

The gliders are only one aspect of the project. In the Rutgers University Coastal Ocean Observation Lab, or Cool Room, Research Project Manager Hugh Roarty monitors surface currents data from radars stationed in Antarctica. Scientists dug through about three feet of snow and ice just to set up a stable foundation for the instrument. The team installed three high frequency radars. The radar’s about the size of a telephone booth with one antenna that transmits and receives the signal from the beach.

“So it’s a remote sensing device and it transmits a radio signal between AM/FM radio band. And it’s very similar to a Doppler radar that a police might use. Based on the Doppler shift of the return signal you can sense the current in the area,” Roarty said.

If researchers know the surface currents around Palmer Station, they can predict how concentrated the penguin food will be in the area and that effects how far they have to go to forage. This high frequency radar is also called an over-the-horizon technology.

“With this technology, the signal hugs the surface of the ocean and so you can go well beyond the horizon to make your measurements,” said Roarty.

Rutgers has 12 high frequency radar stations along the Jersey Coast too — from Sandy Hook down to Cape May — valuable data that’s sent to the U.S. Coast Guard. Roarty says the radar will actually reduce the Coast Guard’s search area for a missing person and that’s because it tracks the currents and everything drifting along with them.

“Working with the Coast Guard, they surmise that we could save 50 additional lives per year using this surface current data,” Roarty said.

The high frequency radars will remain in Antarctica throughout the year. As for the gliders, they’ll be shipped back to the lab in February.