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Advancing the understanding of glacial erosion and retreat through robot sediment sampling in subglacial streams

In partnership with
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The challenge

Glaciers cover about 10% of the Earth’s land. As glaciers melt, they expel sediment in addition to ice and water. This causes glacial erosion and sediment discharge which can shape and impact the surrounding landscape in addition to the communities, hydropower operations and ecosystems downstream. The discharged sediment also contains information about the past and present glacial processes that have shaped the landscape. By analysing the sediment in subglacial systems, insights can be gained into the sources of the sediment, the sediment flux expelled from the glacier, and the erosional processes below the glacier.

This knowledge is imperative to understanding the effects of climate change and to inform our management of water resources in mountainous regions as glaciers retreat and hydrology and sediment dynamics in glacierized catchments evolve. This understanding could help to develop mitigation strategies for climate change, and to better prepare surrounding communities and ecosystems for future changes. The sediment suspended in subglacial rivers (rivers submerged within glaciers) is particularly important to understand changing glacier erosion in response to glacier retreat.

However, observing sediment dynamics or collecting samples from subglacial or englacial streams is challenging as they can be many meters deep into the ice, making them difficult and dangerous to access. In the absence of available observations of the subglacial environment, much of the knowledge of subglacial processes relies upon numerical models and observations from glacier termini. 


of the Earth's land is covered with glaciers.

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The solution

The joint venture between EPFL and Unil led by researchers Josie Hughes and Ian Delaney proposes developing a semi-autonomous robot that can collect data and samples from within subglacial streams to significantly advance our understanding of these systems.

« This data can be used to support decision making and the implementation of solutions that counteract the impact of glacier retreat [...] »

The robotic system will leverage the flow within the streams, and via a flexible tether, buoyancy control and soft morphing body and navigate these streams within glaciers. By equipping the robot with onboard sensors and a sediment sampling system, they will deploy the robot into deep sub-glacial rivers to collect samples from both the river and the glacier bed.

The expected impact includes both scientific contributions through the development of a proof-of-concept of our subglacial sampling robot, and also from original and unique data reflecting the sediment in these subglacial environments. This data can be used to support decision making and the implementation of solutions that counteract the impact of glacier retreat and leverage the energy in these water systems.

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