By Alison Fox
December 05, 2019
An Elephant Seal
Credit: Etienne Pauthenet

NASA's non-human employee, an elephant seal, has been hard at work collecting data in Antarctica.

The seal — that weighs as much as a midsize pickup truck — started work in May to find out how the Antarctic Circumpolar Current, which flows in a loop around the continent, transfers heat, according to NASA.

In an effort to gather data on the current, which NASA called “not fully understood,” the seal swam more than 3,000 miles over three months through the “turbulent” water, making about 80 dives each day — some up to 1,090 yards.

The tagged seal was equipped with a sensor that looked a bit like a fascinator hat, allowing it to collect data on how heat moves vertically between the different layers of the ocean in the current. Lia Siegelman, a visiting scientist from France to NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California, found small fronts — or sudden changes in water — carried heat from the ocean’s depths up to the surface.

The research will help scientists discern how much heat the ocean is able to absorb from the sun.

"Most current modeling studies indicate that the heat would move from the surface to the ocean interior in these cases, but with the new observational data provided by the seal, we found that that's not the case," Siegelman said in a statement, adding: "Inaccurate representation of these small-scale fronts could considerably underestimate the amount of heat transferred from the ocean interior back to the surface and, as a consequence, potentially overestimate the amount of heat the ocean can absorb.

“This could be an important implication for our climate and the ocean's role in offsetting the effects of global warming by absorbing most of the heat,” she added.

The study was based in the late spring and early summer, and Siegelman said more research is necessary, both during the winter and in other locations.

Seals tend to spend up to 10 months of the year swimming so this particular employee appears ready to work.