Tech & Science

Weird ‘Singing’ Coming From Antarctica’s Ross Ice Shelf Recorded by Scientists

A weird “singing” sound has been recorded coming from one of Antarctica’s vast ice shelves. The “song” was recorded over two years during observations of seismic changes to the Ross Ice Shelf—a slab of ice about the size of Texas.

"It's kind of like you're blowing a flute, constantly, on the ice shelf," Julien Chaput, a geophysicist and mathematician at Colorado State University, said in a statement.

Chaput is lead author of a study about the singing ice shelf published in the journal Geophysical Research Letters. The discovery of the song, he says, could better help scientists monitor changes at the ice shelf.

Across Antarctica, ice shelves are weakening as a result of climate change and are becoming increasingly at risk of collapse. If and when this happens, it could have global consequences, causing sea levels to rise significantly.

A recent report by the Intergovernmental Panel for Climate Change (IPCC) found we are way off reducing global warming to the 1.5 Celsius target set out in the Paris Agreement. This makes monitoring and understanding how shelves are changing all the more important—preventing ice loss by limiting warming is becoming less and less likely.

ross ice shelf View of the Ross Ice Shelf. Rick Aster

Ice shelves, the researchers note, are “floating buttresses of large glaciers” extending over oceans. The Ross Ice shelf, which is several hundred meters thick and covers an area of about 193,400 square miles, is the largest ice shelf in Antarctica. The shelf is covered in “snow dunes”—mounds of thick snow that sort of acts as a blanket to the ice, preventing melting.

Chaput and colleagues placed extremely sensitive seismographs across the ice shelf for two years. Over this period, they discovered the ice shelf “continuously sings” and that the song changes as the wind blows across the landscape, altering the snow dunes.

The researchers discovered the snow is constantly vibrating as a result of the winds, and that this produces a sound a bit like a beating drum. Study author Rick Aster told Newsweek: "Once we really started looking at it in detail we were stunned by the richness of information there. It has lots of interesting features that we didn’t elaborate on in the current paper but will be concentrating on in future studies.

"For instance, the signals appear to also be sensitive to the alignment of ice crystals in the snow and ice, and perhaps to cracks as well. They also show indications of sensitivity to ocean tides, which raise and lower and otherwise perturb the ice shelf. These tides also cause tiny 'ice quakes' near the ice shelf edge that tell us something about its fracturing properties.

Scientists believe observing the ice shelf’s song is a good way to track changes in real time. “Whereas satellite-based observations are limited by orbital cycles and sparse measurements, this approach allows for direct structural interpretation of environmental forcing on extremely short time scales,” they conclude.

Aster added: "This is yet another tool in an increasingly sensitive and diverse set of ways that we monitor ice shelf behavior."

This article has been updated to include quotes from Rick Aster.