Boaty McBoatface Goes to Antarctica

This autonomous submarine is better known for its viral-made name than the important data collection it's doing in Antarctic waters. Credit: Christopher Furlong / Getty Images

Internet star and high-tech mini-submarine Boaty McBoatface will depart from Punta Arenas, Chile, and sail to Antarctica on its first research mission today. The remotely operated vessel, named by a public poll gone wrong (in the eyes of the British government at least), is set to study the "deepest and coldest abyssal ocean waters on earth" – known as Antarctic Bottom Water – which have outsize influence on the world's oceans. 

Boaty McBoatface was born in 2016, when the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC), a British agency, asked the public to name its brand new $250 million ship. The new ship, NERC proudly announced, was going to tackle “some of the most important issues facing humanity, including climate change, future sea level rise, and the impact of environmental change on marine biodiversity.”

A suggestion made by a former BBC presenter, the name "Boaty McBoatface," emerged as the clear winner. The Science Minister Jo Johnson felt this didn’t reflect the magnitude of the “state-of-the-art polar research ship” that Great Britain was going for, and he ended up naming the vessel "RRS Sir David Attenborough," after the journalist and Planet Earth 2 narrator. As a consolation prize to the more than 120,000 votes Boaty received, NERC gave the already-legendary name to three mini-submarines that will accompany mother ship Attenborough and aid in underwater research. The first one begins its first mission this week.

For this missions, scientists from the British Antarctic Survey and the University of Southampton are joining a team of engineers from the National Oceanographic Centre to study water flow and turbulence in the Orkney Passage, and try to understand how global warming is affecting our oceans.

Located roughly 500 miles from the Antarctic Peninsula, the Orkney Passage is a 3,500-meter-deep submarine valley that works as a choke-point to the flow of Antarctic Bottom Water that navigates from Antarctica’s Weddell Sea to the Atlantic Ocean. Boaty McBoatface (it never gets old) will travel back and forth through an abyssal current of ABW, so researchers can measure how fast and turbulent those currents are, and how they react to changes in winds over the Southern Ocean.

“Our goal is to learn enough about these convoluted processes to represent them (for the first time) in the models that scientists use to predict how our climate will evolve over the 21st century and beyond,” University of Southampton’s Professor Alberto Naveira Garabato, the lead scientist of the research cruise, wrote in a statement.

Boaty McBoatface might have not gotten the honor of being immortalized as the name of Britain’s state-of-the-art polar research ship, but it is certainly doing its part to make some arcane Antarctic oceanography a hot social media topic.

Not bad for a meme sensation that was unapologetically vetoed by the British government.