Scientists in the summer of 2002 observed with astonishment the collapse and collapse of the Larsen B ice shelf in just over a month. Never before has such a vast area – 3,250 km 2 had disintegrated so quickly. And with climate change accelerating its environmental impact, NASA's glaciologists have tried at the last minute to understand exactly how global warming is affecting ice.
Thousands of earthquakes are recorded every day on the Antarctic ice floe.
These ice tremors, also known as cryoserism, occur when the ice recovers after melting during the day.
And it is thought that the phenomenon will help explain the dissolution of large ice floes.
"In these areas, we would record tens, hundreds, even thousands per night," says Professor Douglas MacAyeal, co-author of the NASA-funded study.
"Seismometers may be a convenient way for us to remotely monitor the melting of glaciers."
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Professor MacAyeal's team at the University of Chicago is interested in the role of "earthquakes" on floating ice.
But the study has led the team to wonder if the phenomenon was occurring in the Antarctic ice and what role it plays in melting and disintegrating ice.
The University of Chicago team installed seismometers – instruments recording ground motion – for two months during the melt season at two locations near seasonal meltwater lakes on the McMurdo Ice Shelf .
One was drier; the other was more muddy, with puddles of melted water forming and refreezing.
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And they discovered that the wetland was animated by nocturnal seismic activity.
"In these ponds, there is often a layer of ice over the melted water, like in a frozen lake," says Professor MacAyeal.
"As the temperature cools at night, the ice at the top contracts and the water below expands when it is frostbitten.
"It distorts the top lid until it breaks in a snap."
The energy vibrates in the surroundings, where it is recorded by seismometers.
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According to Professor MacAyeal, some of the cracks can be repaired, but not others.
This may explain why icebergs come off more often during the colder periods of the year.
"Maybe this is happening at longer and slower scales," said Professor MacAyeal.
This discovery adds an important element to our understanding of the physics and processes associated with melting ponds on ice, especially if it can help researchers remotely follow the Antarctic melting.
"It can be very helpful to add that to our other ice monitoring tools," said MacAyeal.
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