Oct. 16 (UPI) -- The songs of Antarctica's largest ice shelf could help scientists monitor the effects of climate change on the Southern Continent.
The Ross Ice Shelf, fed by glaciers from the Antarctic interior, stretches 193,363 square miles across the Southern Ocean. As wind blows across the shelf's snow dunes, the snow layers and thick slab of floating ice beneath vibrates, producing low-pitched humming patterns.
Because the Ross Ice Shelf acts as a stopper, slowing the advance of interior ice toward the open ocean, scientists are keen to understand the ice shelf's dynamics. Should the shelf's structural integrity diminish, Antarctica could experience accelerated melting, resulting in a dramatic rise is global sea levels.
To study the ice shelf's physical characteristics, scientists buried sensitive seismometers beneath the snow to record the shelf's changing vibrations.
When scientists analyzed acoustic data collected between 2014 and 2017, they realized the snow dunes atop the Ross Ice Shelf are constantly vibrating. As storms altered dune patterns and the texture of the ice shelf's snowy surface, the pitch of the seismic tune shifted. Changes in air temperature and wind speed also affected how the vibrations traveled through the snow and ice.
While the ice shelf's songs aren't audible to the human ear, the sensitive seismometers allowed scientists to decipher the frozen tunes.
"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 news release.
Scientists think continued seismic monitoring could help researchers track the effects of climate change on the ice shelf. Shifts in the ice's vibrational frequencies could reveal the early formation of cracks or melt ponds -- signs of structural instability.
Researchers detailed their initial acoustic monitoring effort this week in the journal Geophysical Research Letters.
"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."