Researchers release audio of Antarctic ice 'singing' a haunting song

Pablo Tucker
October 20, 2018

The American Geo-Physical Union released the recording of the Ross Ice Shelf after scientists buried 34 ultra sensitive seismic sensors to study the crust and mantle underneath. The goal was to use the sensors to look at the structure of the ice shelf throughout different seasons, researcher Julien Chaput told Gizmodo, but the sounds came as a "happy accident" that were captured during the research. The cause was the rapid melting of the snow and ice, which rendered the firn less sensible to seismic waves. The ice shelf buttresses adjacent ice sheets on Antarctica's mainland, impeding ice flow from land into water, like a cork in a bottle.

The resulting data showed something unusual: the "fur coat" snow layer that protects the ice from heat was constantly "singing", or vibrating.

Not only were whipping winds causing the ice sheet's snow to rumble, but the pitch of this seismic hum also changed depending on the slushy surface conditions.

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. 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.

The lowest frequency a human can hear is only 20 Hz, and even then this is only possible in extreme anechoic chambers, but we can "feel" sounds lower than that, for example during earthquakes. "And that's essentially the two forcing effects we can observe".

He believes the disturbances occurring on the surface are being trapped in the form of seismic waves which travel through the ice shelf.

"Basically, what we have on our hands is a tool to monitor the environment, really", he added.

Read the full study, published this week in the journal Geophysical Research Letters. Antartica is experiencing an accelerating loss of mass from its ice shelves, which act as plugs holding back the world's largest stores of ice from flowing uninhibited into the ocean.

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