Coastal Sustainability Institute > News Archive > This robot is going to map uncharted kelp forests in the Arctic–and the impact of climate change

This robot is going to map uncharted kelp forests in the Arctic–and the impact of climate change

The last thing Mark Patterson hears before his underwater robot embarks on a mission is a recording of his eldest child’s voice: “Glug, glug, glug! I’m going on a dive!”

Once the robot’s antenna slips below the surface, the expedition is no longer in Patterson’s control. “I program the mission, but it’s up to the robot to make good choices,” says Patterson, professor of marine and environmental sciences at Northeastern.

After a day’s work collecting information about a specific ocean ecosystem, the robot equipped with sensors and cameras, returns to shore, announced by Patterson’s youngest child in 5-year-old soprano: “I’m back on the surface!”

“I love when the robot comes home. I love hearing my kids’ voices,” he says.

Patterson developed Fetch, the autonomous underwater robot, in 1998 as a means to compile data about the ocean more efficiently than human divers. “You get a lot of bang for your buck with these robots,” he says. “You send them out for the day, and they come back with a huge pile of data. It’s exciting.”

In the past two decades, Fetch has investigated krill populations in the Antarctic ocean and coral-killing sea sponges in reefs in the Caribbean. 

Now, Fetch will travel to the Canadian Arctic to explore kelp forests, an ecosystem largely uncharted by marine biologists. Patterson recently received a Fulbright U.S. Scholar Award to facilitate this research, which will be conducted in partnership with Université Laval in Quebec City. 

The primary goal of Patterson’s research is to map the kelp forests. “First we need to know where they are,” he says. “Then we can look at how climate change affects the beds. It could be that kelp forests actually expand and do better under this warming scenario in the Arctic.” 

Read more at Northeastern Global News.

Photo by Matthew Modoono/Northeastern University

Author: Emily Arntsen