KINGSTON, R.I. (WPRI) — The University of Rhode Island is teaming up with the University of Hawaii on a collaborative project using robots to help better understand icebergs and their impact on local environments and ecosystems.
The goal is to use the underwater vehicle to get up close and personal with several icebergs to measure their depth, melting rate, and temperature.
The universities received a $1.5 million award from the National Science Foundation for the project.
“We are investigating how fast the iceberg is melting. So if you want to calculate the melt rate, you need to know the 3D shape, air and water temperature around it, and the wind speed and current around the iceberg. With all of those parameters, you can calculate the melting rate of the iceberg,” explained Dr. Mingxi Zhou, assistant professor at URI’s Graduate School of Oceanography.
Zhou is the lead on the project which began in September. He has previous experience studying icebergs using marine robots.
“You have to get full coverage of the iceberg,” Zhou added. “One task for the underwater vehicle is that you have to navigate around the iceberg at different depths to get that full coverage.”
Zhou explained that although icebergs originate in the polar regions of the world, their impacts can be felt at lower latitudes.
On the industrial side of things, especially in Atlantic Canada, many offshore industries have cables and pipelines along the seafloor. Zhou said this can become an issue because many icebergs that form in the Arctic can reach the seafloor.
As the icebergs travel, they can scrape the cables or damage the pipelines, potentially leading to environmental hazards.
Zhou added that those offshore industries make forecasts to predict where icebergs will move and if they get too close, ships will be brought in to tow them away and change their trajectory.
“In order to get a good projection, [the offshore industries] need a good idea of the iceberg shape, so that’s why we plan to map different icebergs and also collect the water properties around it like currents, wind, so there’s a data set for them to validate their iceberg projection model,” Zhou said.
Icebergs can also impact local ecosystems due to their freshwater nature. By mixing with saltwater, it can change the water density, circulation, and potentially alter an entire ecosystem, according to Zhou.
The team is now in the process of acquiring the surface vehicle and buying various other equipment. The project is expected to be completed in August 2026.