The rapidly melting ice sheets on the coast of West Antarctica are a potentially major contributor to rising ocean levels worldwide. Although warm water near the coast is thought to be the main factor causing the ice to melt, the process by which this water ends up near the cold continent is not well understood.

Using robotic ocean gliders, Caltech researchers have now found that swirling ocean eddies, similar to atmospheric storms, play an important role in transporting these warm waters to the Antarctic coast—a discovery that will help the scientific community determine how rapidly the ice is melting and, as a result, how quickly ocean levels will rise.

"When you have a melting slab of ice, it can either melt from above because the atmosphere is getting warmer or it can melt from below because the ocean is warm," explains lead author Andrew Thompson, assistant professor of environmental science and engineering. "All of our evidence points to ocean warming as the most important factor affecting these ice shelves, so we wanted to understand the physics of how the heat gets there."

Because the gliders are small—only about six feet long—and are very energy efficient, they can sample the ocean for much longer periods than large ships can. When the glider surfaces every few hours, it "calls" the researchers via a mobile phone–like device located on the tail. The communication allows the researchers to almost immediately access the information the glider has collected.

Like airborne gliders, the bullet-shaped ocean gliders have no propeller; instead they use batteries to power a pump that changes the glider's buoyancy. When the pump pushes fluid into a compartment inside the glider, the glider becomes denser than seawater and less buoyant, thus causing it to sink. If the fluid is pumped instead into a bladder on the outside of the glider, the glider becomes less dense than seawater—and therefore more buoyant—ultimately rising to the surface. Like airborne gliders, wings convert this vertical lift into horizontal motion.

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Also: Learn about Remote Sensing of Ice Sheets and Snow.