"What we're concerned about is where the warm ocean waters potentially penetrate beneath the ice shelf and hasten melting," said Northern Illinois University geologist Ross Powell, who unveiled the project at the American Geophysical Union conference in San Francisco this week.
Predicting the rise of sea levels has been difficult because scientists don't have the information to create accurate computer models. The sub-ice rover, nicknamed SIR, will observe melting right where seawater meets the glacier's base.
"It's designed to go to an area where no man has ever been before and probably will never get there ... we have to do this remotely," Powell said.
SIR is scheduled for a trial run in Lake Tahoe in March before being deployed to Antarctica for testing in late 2011 or early 2012. If all goes well, about a year later the submarine is slated to begin a series of missions, sliding down half-mile long, 30-inch wide ice boreholes and surfacing up others 12 miles away.
The submarine, which weighs about 2,200 pounds and collapses to 22 inches in diameter to fit through the holes, will remain tethered and powered to a control center on the surface throughout the surveys, which are expected to last up to about 10 days at a time.