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Studying Antarctica remotely from USM's Department of Marine Science

Vernon Asper

Vernon Asper

Dr. Vernon Asper, a researcher and professor in the Department of Marine Science at the University of Southern Mississippi, has taken 19 trips since 1990 to the Antarctica to do research on underwater particle dynamics using high-tech remotely operated vehicles to gather information.

During his most recent trip in November, Asper deployed an ingenious underwater glider ROV that has no propeller, and instead uses gravity to move around. The only motors shift a battery back and forth to move the device through the water, and change the vehicle’s buoyancy by pumping oil into and out of an external bladder.

“It is extremely clever,” Asper said of the device that is about eight feet tall with an antenna. “Even though these underwater gliders cost $170,000, compared with ice breakers, they are really inexpensive. These research vessels we charter cost close to $65,000 per day. In just a few days of ship time, you have paid for one of these gliders. You don’t need a ship, and you can sample continuously despite the weather. It can operate for years if you change the batteries. It is a really neat technology.”

One advantage of the glider is it can be deployed before the hole in the sea ice — known as the polynya — opens in early November, which is summertime in the Antarctica. Disadvantages include that only a limited number of sensors can be put on it, and there is always the possibility of a malfunction that could cause the glider to be lost.

“It is so expensive to do research in Antarctica, so it is cheap even if you occasionally lose something,” said Asper, who is also director of the Undersea Vehicle Technology Center of the National Institute of Undersea Science and Technology and chairman of the Mississippi Commission on Marine Resources. “We had a proof of concept project with this same type of underwater glider two years ago. It worked so well, we got funding to do it again this year.”

In November, Asper took the underwater glider to the edge of the ice, deployed it and then used a satellite phone to call his colleague back in Mississippi at the Stennis Space Center, USM marine science graduate Kevin Martin, to send the glider on its way.

“As soon as it is in the water, Kevin gives it the ‘go’ command, and it goes on its own,” said Asper, whose research is being funded by National Science Foundation through the Virginia Institute of Marine Sciences, which is part of the College of William and Mary in Virginia. “Now I’m back; we discuss which way to send it, what the ice and wind are going to do, and where the penguins are going. Dave Ainley, the world’s foremost penguin expert, is involved in this conversation, as well.”

The glider is measuring dissolved oxygen, temperature, salinity and the particles in the water including the algaephytoplankton that is at the base of the marine food chain. It also has an eco-sounder that looks at krill, an important food source for many of the Antarctica species.

Asper and his underwater glider.

Asper and his underwater glider.

“We are studying the entire ecosystem from plankton to penguins,” Asper said. “Ainley has been studying the penguins following them with satellite tags. As the season progresses, the penguins are going farther and farther from the ice. Ainley is following the penguins around to see where they are foraging. We have been piloting the glider from here and trying to keep it as close to where the penguins are foraging as possible but, at the same time, avoiding the sea ice. As the summer progresses, we will see how the plankton moves around and how the penguins respond to it.”

Similar underwater gliders were used to monitor the Deepwater Horizon oil spill.

“We used them in the oil spill to see where oil was,” he said. “It is excellent for monitoring that sort of thing. You can leave them in the water for up to six months, and if something happens, then they are available. They can provide data when the weather is too rough. They don’t care about hurricanes. They work just as fine in 30-foot seas and zero seas.”

USM has two underwater gliders that operate in deep water, and one that operates in shallow water.

Prior to Hurricane Katrina, Asper used to pilot a flying boat—essentially an inflatable boat with a motorized hang glider attached — to do research in the Gulf of Mexico. The flying boat was destroyed in Katrina, and hasn’t been replaced. But Asper, an avid pilot, still gets his time in the air. He spent 24 years building an experimental airplane in his garage. He has been flying it mainly in the local area, although he attended a fly-in with this type of airplane in Virginia this past May. He is expecting seven or eight planes for a similar fly-in next April in Mississippi.

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