Quantcast

Antarctic Seals Help Scientists Track Melting Ice Sheet

Animals
Weddell seals. U.S. Geological Survey

Scientists studying the warming waters and salinity of the Southern Ocean's Amundsen Sea—which surrounds the Thwaites and Pine Island glaciers, two of the largest and fastest-retreating glaciers in Antarctica—are using a novel method to collect data.

They temporarily glued sensors onto the fur of Antarctic seals. Really.


Instead of using research vessels, which are unable to traverse through the region's thick sea ice during winter, the researchers tagged seven southern elephant seals and seven Weddell seals with devices that can record the waters' warmth and salinity and send this data back via satellite.

The project is a collaboration between scientists at the University of East Anglia (UEA) and the Sea Mammal Research Unit at the University of St. Andrews in the UK.

"These tiny sensors, which are temporarily glued to the animals' fur and fall off during molting, will allow us to collect essential oceanographic observations during the winter time, as well as providing a better indication of how vulnerable the seals might be to climate change," Lars Boehme of Sea Mammal Research Unit told The Scotsman.

According to a press release, the seals were able to collect measurements as they moved around the region and dived from the surface of the ocean down through the water to the sea bed during hunts for food.

Over a period of nine months, the team collected data from more than 10,000 dives in over an area of 93,000 square miles.

The project aims to help climate modellers make more accurate predictions about how rapidly the Western Antarctic ice sheet is melting, which could significantly add to global sea level rise. The region contains enough ice to raise global sea levels by an estimated 4 feet.

Notably, the new findings show that the Amundsen Sea's layer of circumpolar deep water—a relatively warm (about 2°C) water mass blamed for destabilizing the continent's ice shelves—is thicker, warmer and saltier in the winter than during the summer.

The research was published Tuesday in the journal Geophysical Research Letters.

Thwaites and Pine Island are two of the fastest receding glaciers on the Western Antarctic Ice Sheet. The region contains enough ice to raise global sea levels by 4 feet.

"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," said Helen Mallett, who led the study at UEA, in a statement.

"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."

Mallett added, "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 modellers who are attempting to predict how fast sea levels will rise."

Related Articles Around the Web
    From Your Site Articles

    EcoWatch Daily Newsletter


    mevans / E+ / Getty Images

    The federal agency that manages the Great Barrier Reef issued an unprecedented statement that broke ranks with Australia's conservative government and called for urgent action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, according to the Guardian.

    Read More Show Less

    A powerful earthquake struck near Athens, Greece and shook the capital city for 15 seconds on Friday, causing people to run into the streets to escape the threat of falling buildings, NBC News reported.

    Read More Show Less
    Sponsored
    Golde Wallingford submitted this photo of "Pure Joy" to EcoWatch's first photo contest. Golde Wallingford

    EcoWatch is pleased to announce our third photo contest!

    Read More Show Less
    U.S. government scientists concluded in a new report that last month was the hottest June on record. Angelo Juan Ramos / Flickr

    By Jessica Corbett

    As meteorologists warned Thursday that temperatures above 100°F are expected to impact two-thirds of the country this weekend, U.S. government scientists revealed that last month was the hottest June ever recorded — bolstering calls for radical global action on the climate emergency.

    Read More Show Less
    Rod Waddington / CC BY-SA 2.0

    By John R. Platt

    For years now conservationists have warned that many of Madagascar's iconic lemur species face the risk of extinction due to rampant deforestation, the illegal pet trade and the emerging market for the primates' meat.

    Yes, people eat lemurs, and the reasons they do aren't exactly what we might expect.

    Read More Show Less
    Sponsored
    Pixnio

    By Rachael Link, MS, RD

    Many types of flour are commonly available on the shelves of your local supermarket.

    Read More Show Less
    A visitor views a digital representation of the human genome at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City. Mario Tama / Getty Images

    Genetics are significantly more responsible for driving autism spectrum disorders than maternal factors or environmental factors such as vaccines and chemicals, according to a massive new study involving more than 2 million people from five different countries.

    Read More Show Less
    Pixabay

    By Emilie Karrick Surrusco

    Across the globe, extreme weather is becoming the new normal.

    Read More Show Less