Science

Listen to this: Weird, spooky noises heard in Antarctic ice shelf

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Everyone’s getting in on the eerie Halloween mood these days, even the ice in Antarctica.

Using special instruments, scientists have discovered weird sounds at the bottom of the world. The noise is actually vibrating ice, caused by the wind blowing across snow dunes, according to a new study.

“It’s kind of like you’re blowing a flute, constantly, on the ice shelf,” study lead author Julien Chaput, a geophysicist and mathematician at Colorado State University, said in a statement.

Another scientist, glaciologist Douglas MacAyeal of the University of Chicago, likened the sounds to the buzz of thousands of cicadas. The sounds are too low in frequency to be heard by human ears unless sped up by the monitoring equipment. 

The original reason for the study was not to record sounds down there but to research what’s happening to the continent’s ice shelves: In 2014, scientists buried 34 seismic sensors under the snow on Antarctica’s Ross Ice Shelf in order to monitor its structure and movement.

Ice shelves have been thinning and collapsing in Antarctica because of warmer ocean and air temperatures because of climate change. As the shelves disintegrate, they allow other inland ice to fall into the ocean, contributing to sea level rise.

Studying the vibrations of an ice shelf’s insulating snow jacket could give scientists a sense of how it is responding to changing climate conditions, MacAyeal said.

Changes to the ice shelf’s “seismic hum” could also indicate whether cracks in the ice are forming that might indicate whether the ice shelf is susceptible to breaking up.

“The response of the ice shelf tells us that we can track extremely sensitive details about it,” Chaput said. “Basically, what we have on our hands is a tool to monitor the environment, really. And its impact on the ice shelf.”

The study was published Tuesday in Geophysical Research Letters, a journal of the American Geophysical Union.

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