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Ecological Research: Studying Ecosystem Change with ROVs

We were thrilled to speak to Kenneth H Dunton, Professor in the Department of Marine Science at the University of Texas at Austin and Project Lead with Beaufort Lagoon Ecosystems (BLE) Long Term Ecological Research (LTER) to learn how he uses his two DTG3 ROVs for research.

Neatly summed up by BLE as “we study ecosystem change where land meets the sea at the top of the world,” Dunton and his team study lagoons and other aquatic sites along the northern Alaskan Arctic coast. More specifically they study land/sea interactions in these unique ecosystems, including their biogeochemical and biological makeup, their seasonal dynamics and long-term changes - while also using their expertise to serve local communities.

Texas at Austin

Beaufort Lagoon Ecosystems Long Term Ecological Research

With 12 investigators from 6 different universities the BLE LTER team has studied a total of 530km of coastline from their 3 research nodes along the Beaufort Sea Coast Utqiaġvik (formerly Barrow), Deadhorse, and Kaktovik.

At every node, they deploy instruments and collect samples in nearby lagoon systems, each with their own unique characteristics. This research provides a much needed mechanism for tracking and understanding two main characteristics:

  1. How natural climate cycles influence coastal ecosystems in the Arctic.
  2. How climate change effects such as permafrost thaw, shifting precipitation regimes, and losses of sea ice alter coastal ecosystems through effects on inputs, nutrient cycling, and ocean mixing.

Kenneth simplified their work by saying BLE LTER strives to “better understand the dynamics of change at the land/sea interface in the Arctic Sea.”

Long Term Ecological Research (LTER) helps researchers understand how the environment is changing through time and how past events, such as shifts in ocean currents and the arrival of new species, impact ecosystems over long periods of time. The extended tenure of LTER sites also engenders relationships with local communities so that citizens are engaged with ecological research, which in turn helps to ensure the longevity of the site. “The system is changing rapidly due to climate change,” explained Kenneth. LTER allows researchers to track and measure these changes over time.


Making up more than 10% of the land-sea interfaces worldwide are coastal lagoons. The Beaufort Sea lagoons specifically are complex and productive ecosystems. Encompassing more than half of the Beaufort Sea coast, these coastal lagoons provide crucial habitats and food for large populations of migratory fish and waterfowl.

It is also critical that BLE LTER makes use of three study seasons as the lagoons are in vastly different conditions during the year;

  • frozen over
  • ice break-up
  • open water

The dramatic seasonality greatly influences sampling strategies for the BLE LTER. Kenneth explained that “most studies focus on summer when there is no ice cover. In winter, 2 m of ice makes underwater research tough and expensive.”

Learn more about how ROVs allow researchers to gain valuable insight underwater.

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Using a ROV for Underwater Arctic Research

Using the DTG3 enables BLE LTER to conduct under ice research in all 3 research seasons. “We drill holes through the ice and deploy the equipment,” detailed Kenneth. “We need to see what is happening under the ice. Diving is very intensive and time-consuming. If we can avoid diving and use the ROV it saves a lot of time and money.”

“With the DTG3 we can drive between ice holes to pull trawls under the ice,” explained Kenneth. “We use 30m transects to pull nets and trawls which allows us to make substantial collections.”

Straightforward navigation and maneuverability helps BLE LTER conduct work under the ice. “You have to rely on your instruments to go from one small ice hole to another,” said Kenneth. “It’s very dark under the ice and the vehicle has to drive in a small space between the frozen ice and seabed.”

Benefits of using the DTG3

The DTG3 allows the researchers to gain valuable insight into the underwater world.

High Definition Image & Video - Using the ROV the BLE LTER team can gather images of life on the seabed with Kenneth noting that he “really liked the quality of the image.”

Navigation - Kenneth added that utilizing the precision thruster on the DTG3 has “been a huge benefit. It enables you to maintain depth and course heading.”

Durability - Working in Arctic conditions also requires a tough vehicle that can handle the colder weather and harsh surroundings - including bright Arctic light. “When you’re outside, in Arctic daylight, having the bigger screen is very helpful,” shared Kenneth.

Manuverability - Kenneth explained that the DTG3 allows researchers to navigate under the ice in very shallow water (4 m), between the frozen ice above and the seafloor below to collect data, deploy lines for net and bottom trawl sampling, and capture underwater views. “It’s not open water, there’s a hard surface above and below,” explained Kenneth. “Deep Trekker was valuable in those conditions.”

Texas at Austin

The Deep Trekker Difference

At Deep Trekker we pride ourselves on empowering our customers. We are proud to put the support of the entire Deep Trekker team behind every vehicle.

“Everyone has been very helpful, I’m very appreciative,” said Kenneth. “The people at Deep Trekker are very supportive. Christianne has been really good, very helpful. I’ve enjoyed working with her.”

“I looked at a lot of ROVs, and Deep Trekker had the features I really needed. I was looking for simplicity, maneuverability, and instrument stability for precise navigation without visual aids.”

We sincerely thank Kenneth Dunton and the BLE LTER team for their time and effort in this story! You can learn more about Beaufort Lagoon Systems LTER on their website and facebook page

As always, the Deep Trekker team is available to answer any questions you may have about using submersible ROVs for underwater research, reach out today!

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