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What Does A Melting Glacier Sound Like?

The Hansbreen glacier in Svalbard, Norway in an undated photo.

Credit: Oskar Glowacki

Above: The Hansbreen glacier in Svalbard, Norway in an undated photo.

What Does A Melting Glacier Sound Like?


Grant Deane, research oceanographer, Scripps Institution of Oceanography


What does a melting glacier sound like? The question sounds like a riddle, but the answer could help climate scientists develop a new way to monitor rising ocean levels.

Research from Scripps Institution of Oceanography shows icebergs make more noise as they melt more quickly and that melting icebergs and glaciers make different sounds. Scripps research oceanographer Grant Deane said the work could eventually allow scientists to closely track the melting rate of the Greenland ice sheet, which could raise sea levels about 20 feet if it melted completely.

Deane, along with Scripps postdoctoral scholar Oskar Glowacki and Polish Academy of Sciences researcher Mateusz Moskalik published their work this month in the journal "Geophysical Research Letters." Their research is based on underwater recordings taken in Svalbard, Norway over several years.

But as to the actual noises melting glaciers and icebergs make? They sound like a rushing stream, even if the water they are sitting on is tranquil.

"The first time I heard these recordings, I thought there was something wrong," Deane said. "It was a completely calm and still day."

Deane said running water and melting ice sound alike because of the bubbles inside each.

"When a bubble is first formed, it radiates a pulse of sound. It has musical qualities to it. That’s why running water sounds musical. It’s because of the delightful sounds of all these bubbles," he said. "With the glacier ice, it’s also bubbles. In this case, it’s ancient atmosphere trapped in the ice that is transported to the sea over hundreds of years under great pressure. When that ice melts, it releases that gas back into the water and makes the sounds of bubbles."

Since icebergs are smaller and have fewer bubbles, it's easier to hear the individual bubbles. Glaciers sound more like a hiss because of the volume of bubbles. Deane and other researchers' next steps are to refine software that can translate these noises into concrete measures of sea level rise.

Deane joins KPBS Midday Edition on Wednesday with to explain his research.


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