Science

Boaty McBoatface, Climate Warrior

The British research vessel just revealed some significant climate news.

A yellow submarine sits on a dolly, with the name Boaty McBoatface emblazoned on the side.
Us, in 2016: Haha, Boaty McBoatface! Boaty McBoatface, in 2019: Haha, you’re all going to die.
Matt Cardy/Getty Images

A lifetime ago in 2016, British scientists went to the public and asked them to help choose a name for a new $290 million research vessel. The scientists hoped voters would choose a fitting namesake—something after naturalist David Attenborough*, perhaps, or explorer Henry Worsley. Instead, more than 124,000 people voted to name a state-of-the-art research ship Boaty McBoatface, and we all had a hearty laugh at the haplessness of government officials who trusted internet denizens to take anything seriously. Embarrassed, the U.K.’s Department for Business, Innovation, and Skill rejected the results of the survey and named the research vessel after Attenborough, giving the populist name Boaty McBoatface to an autonomous underwater vehicle. But newly published research suggests that it will be the more lowly McBoatface who will get the last laugh.

In her (yes, I’m gendering the submarine) maiden voyage, Boaty McBoatface discovered a significant link between Antarctic winds and rising sea temperatures. The findings, which come from a three-day unmanned excursion through mountainous underwater valleys, were published in the journal PNAS. In her 112-mile journey through the Southern Ocean, McBoatface found that increasingly strong winds caused by the hole in the ozone layer above Antartica are creating turbulence deep within the Southern Ocean. The tumult causes colder water from the abyss to mix with warmer water in middle levels, which in turn causes sea temperature to rise. Higher sea temperatures are a significant contributor to rising sea levels, one of the deadlier consequences of climate change that has already displaced coastal and island communities and can make hurricanes and typhoons more dangerous. In other words, Boaty McBoatface returned from the abyss a harbinger of impending disaster.

McBoatface didn’t bring all bad news: Researchers are pretty jazzed about the extent of the data she collected. In a statement released with the findings, Povl Abrahamsen of the British Antarctic Survey said, “This study is a great example of how exciting new technology such as the unmanned submarine ‘Boaty McBoatface’ can be used along with ship-based measurements and cutting-edge ocean models to discover and explain previously unknown processes affecting heat transport within the ocean.” (Good use of ‘single quotes,’ right?) I can only assume that in revenge for British officials deciding that her name wasn’t dignified enough for their precious research vessel, McBoatface will continue to make headlines by bringing us dire data-based evidence of our planet’s doom.

Correction, June 20, 2019: This post originally misidentified David Attenborough as Richard Attenborough.