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Seals help scientists study Antarctic ice sheet melting

"It's clear that enlisting seals to collect this kind of ocean data will offer useful insights for climate change modelers," researcher Helen Mallett said.

By Brooks Hays
Antarctic seals carried tracking devices that measure water temperature and salinity on thousands of dives. The tracking devices beamed back data via satellite and fell off after nine months when the seals molted their outer layer of blubber and fur. Photo by UEA
Antarctic seals carried tracking devices that measure water temperature and salinity on thousands of dives. The tracking devices beamed back data via satellite and fell off after nine months when the seals molted their outer layer of blubber and fur. Photo by UEA

May 15 (UPI) -- A mass of warm, saline water, called circumpolar deep water, or CDW, found in the Southern Ocean's Amundsen Sea, has been blamed for the destabilization of Antarctica's ice shelves.

Unfortunately, scientists have been limited in their ability to study and model the mass of water. That's changing thanks to two species of seal found in Western Antarctica.

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In the summer, research vessels can access the Amundsen Sea, but thick sea ice and icebergs prevent scientists from collecting data during the winter. To improve their datasets, scientists at the University of East Anglia and the University of St. Andrews recruited dozens of seals to carry devices capable of recording temperature and salinity data.

Over a period of nine months, the seals recorded water data during 10,000 dives across a region of the Southern Ocean measuring 93,000 square miles.

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The new data, transmitted via satellites when the seals surfaced from their dives, suggests the Amundsen Sea's CDW is thicker, warmer and saltier during the winter.

"We knew very little about what to expect from this research, since this is the first time that data has been collected in this way in this area," UEA researcher Helen Mallett said in a news release. "We were able to collect much more information from the seals than all the previous ship-based surveys in the area combined and it was clear that, at least during the seasons we observed, there were substantial differences in temperature between the seasons."

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The new findings, detailed in the journal Geophysical Research Letters, suggests the melting and disintegration of the ice shelf along Western Antarctica could be accelerated during the winter. Researchers say they need to continue collecting data over a series of winters to confirm the worrisome trend.

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"Although more will need to be done to measure these differences over a number of years, it's clear that enlisting seals to collect this kind of ocean data will offer useful insights for climate change modelers who are attempting to predict how fast sea levels will rise," Mallet said.

The newly published data could also help marine biologists better understand the foraging patterns of Antarctic seals and how they might be impacted by climate change.

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