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Exploring Earth’s final frontier

With the ability to explore the deepest reaches of the ocean, the UW’s Deepglider is poised to unlock the secrets of climate change in the briny deep.

Dare to do

Covering more than 70 percent of Earth’s surface, the oceans act as our planet’s heartbeat, with differences in depths, currents, temperature and salinity marking changes in its pulse. While these measurements are fairly straightforward, the information they relay about Earth’s health is much more complex.

Fritz Stahr

Fritz Stahr, manager of UW’s Seaglider Fabrication Center

As the planet warms, much of the heat is absorbed in the oceans, resulting in rising sea levels and changes to how water mixes and currents move. While 85 percent of the temperature in the upper water column is well studied, scientists have uncovered “less than 5 percent of what’s between 2,000 meters and the bottom,” says Fritz Stahr, manager of the UW’s Seaglider Fabrication Center. “The deep ocean may play a large role in how much heat is absorbed from the atmosphere and spread around the oceans.” Now, the center’s team stands to vastly improve that number with the Deepglider autonomous underwater vehicle.

In 1995, Charles Eriksen, a UW professor of oceanography, knew that the status quo prevented researchers from truly studying the changing oceans. Repeatedly surveying the open ocean using research vessels is unaffordable more than one or twice every decade, and much ocean variability takes place in between those trips.

Charles Eriksen, professor of oceanography

Charles Eriksen, professor of oceanography

Motivated by a passion for cracking the code behind the sea’s variability, Eriksen began working on a solution to this difficult process. The initial result was Seaglider, a vehicle that can repeatedly dive up to 1,000 meters below the surface for about a year. The next step was to go deeper. Eriksen and his small group of engineers developed the next generation of autonomous explorer: Deepglider.

Deepgliders can repeatedly dive 6,000 meters to the seafloor, a feat unmatched by other gliders. While similar to Seaglider, Deepglider’s revised design cut down on drag and employed a novel means of controlling its compression, extending its battery life and enabling the gliders to remain at sea for an unprecedented 18 months. Perhaps most impressively, operating a Deeplider for about a year costs as much as only one day of ship time, meaning more bright minds can undertake deep ocean research.

The team launched a Deepglider off the coast of Bermuda in January 2015, and it’s still on track to complete its 18-month voyage, revolutionizing underwater research. “This is a really exciting place to be in the oceanographic field,” adds Stahr. “We’re at the beginning of opening a whole part of the ocean that has been hidden.”

Seaglider Fabrication Center

  • In addition to building gliders, the staff provides operator training and equipment refurbishment to University units who use them.
  • The center’s collegiate location also creates a unique learning opportunity for students interested in the field. Students with majors ranging from mechanical engineering to marine affairs have worked at the center to gain experience in the world of underwater research.
  • Seaglider’s reputation has gone global, with scientists from Germany, Australia and Cyprus adding the gliders to their research arsenal.

Learn more about the Seaglider Fabrication Center