Scientists capture eerie seismic howl of Antarctic ice shelf

Antarctic ice

It might sound like the terrifying soundtrack to a horror movie, but winds blowing across the snowy dunes of Antarctica's biggest ice shelf may help researchers monitor climate changes in Antarctica.

When scientists analyzed acoustic data collected between 2014 and 2017, they realized the snow dunes atop the Ross Ice Shelf are constantly vibrating.

Study co-author Rick Aster during a station installation trip on the Ross Ice Shelf, holding a broadband seismometer.

As the world keeps getting catastrophically hotter, Antarctic ice shelves are beginning to dramatically collapse and break apart. But when the researchers actually analyzed the data, they came to a striking conclusion: the outermost layer of the ice shelf was nearly constantly vibrating.

Winds whipping across the massive snow dunes left the shelf's icy covering rumbling like the pounding of a colossal drum.

Study co-author Rick Aster during a station installation trip on the Ross Ice Shelf
Study co-author Rick Aster during a station installation trip on the Ross Ice Shelf

Ice shelves are covered in a thin blanket of snow, typically several meters deep, that insulates the ice below from warming and melting like a fur coat. They also noticed a drop in pitch of the sounds during a warm spell when some of the snow melted. "And that's essentially the two forcing effects we can observe".

While normally inaudible to the human ear, the researchers have made these ultra-low frequencies detectable to our limited hearing range. Scientists say the sounds could alert them to the shelf's condition under climate change, like a kind of warning sound for the planet.

Julien Chaput, an ambient noise monitoring expert at Colorado State University and new faculty member at the University of Texas, El Paso, told Earther that the recordings are a "happy accident".

He said changes to the hum could indicate whether melt ponds or cracks in the ice are forming and, therefore, whether the ice shelf is susceptible to breaking up. Scientists documented the haunting sounds and published their findings in the Geophysical Research Letters on Tuesday. "Basically, what we have on our hands is a tool to monitor the environment, really". This means it is more important than ever that we keep a vigilant eye on any major changes in ice shelves.

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