Jokes can take on a life of their own, especially if they gain traction on the internet. Which is why Boaty McBoatface is the official name of a cutting-edge remotely operated yellow submarine that is embarking on a scientific expedition to the deep, frigid waters of the Antarctic later this week.
You may have noticed that Boaty McBoatface is in fact a submersible and not a boat, as the whimsical moniker suggests (nor does it have a face, for that matter, as one sharp Twitter user noted). That’s because the name was originally meant to be bestowed on a polar research ship in the United Kingdom’s Natural Environmental Research Council fleet. Last year, the British government agency decided to launch an online poll to name the $240 million vessel, fatefully putting the decision in the irreverent hands of the internet.
Much to the council’s chagrin, the plan hilariously and predictably backfired when the name Boaty McBoatface ran away with the vote and emerged triumphant. The government agency, which had clearly hoped for something more dignified, undemocratically opted to overrule the poll results and name the ship after the acclaimed naturalist David Attenborough.
As a concession to the will of the people, they assigned the silly moniker instead to a class of three autonomous underwater research vehicles, the BBC reports. These high-tech underwater robots have the ability to travel under ice, reach depths of 6000 meters, and operate for months on end.
What Does Boaty McBoatface Do?
The first Boaty McBoatface has been tasked with a serious scientific mission. This Friday, it will set off from Chile aboard the Royal Research Ship James Clark Ross on its first autonomous expedition to the Antarctic. There, it will monitor the underwater turbulence and water flow of “an abyssal current of Antarctic Bottom Water along the Orkney Passage”, according to the British Antarctic Survey (BAS).
Boaty will be joined by a team of scientists from the University of Southampton and the BAS in studying the frigid current of bottom water. The current, which forms off the coast of Antarctica, plays an important role in the global circulation of ocean water and climate change. It has been warming steadily, according to scientists, which could have major implications for global warming and rising sea levels.
“One of the most surprising features of the climate change that we are currently experiencing is that the abyssal waters of the world ocean have been warming steadily over the last few decades,” professor Alberto Naveira Garabato wrote in the BAS press release. “Establishing the causes of this warming is important because the warming plays an important role in moderating the ongoing (and likely future) increases in atmospheric temperature and sea level around the globe.”
The other two Boatys are preparing for service in other scientific missions. One Boaty is due to join the crew of the RRS David Attenborough, which is currently under construction and expected to become operational in 2019.
Meanwhile, a cartoon version of Boaty has been adopted by the UK’s National Oceanography Center as a mascot to educate schoolchildren about marine research.