Antarctic Ice Shelf Sings As Winds Whip Across Surface

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The songs of Antarctica's largest ice shelf could help scientists monitor the effects of climate change on the Southern Continent.

To study the ice shelf's physical characteristics, scientists buried sensitive seismometers beneath the snow to record the shelf's changing vibrations.

With this newfound ability, researchers could use seismic stations to continuously monitor the conditions on ice shelves nearly in real time, allowing us to see how the ice shelf's snow jacket is responding to changing climate conditions. The ice shelf buttresses adjacent ice sheets on Antarctica's mainland, impeding ice flow from land into water, like a cork in a bottle.

But they noticed something odd - the snow blanketing the shelf was nearly constantly vibrating.

Winds blowing across snow dunes on Antarctica's Ross Ice Shelf cause the massive slab of ice to "sing". The coating thickness of a few meters acts as an insulating layer, protecting the ice from the heat of the sun. As storms altered dune patterns and the texture of the ice shelf's snowy surface, the pitch of the seismic tune shifted.

The noise has also allowed researchers to discover how several processes like global warming and winds are affecting the ice.

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"Either you change the velocity of the snow by heating or cooling it, or you change where you blow on the flute, by adding or destroying dunes", Chaput said. But, as University of Chicago glaciologist Douglas MacAyeal pointed out, seismic stations could aide near-real-time studies, giving scientists a sense of how that snow jacket responds to climate change.

But if we deployed seismic sensors on more ice shelfs, you could observe subtle environmental changes, in minutes.

While normally inaudible to the human ear, the researchers have made these ultra-low frequencies detectable to our limited hearing range.

The findings are reported in Geophysical Research Letters.

The ice shelf is basically always "singing", the study says, but is "excited" by blowing winds that can speed it up.

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".