News ID: 215140
Published: 0403 GMT May 16, 2018

Seals help scientists study Antarctic ice sheet melting

Seals help scientists study Antarctic ice sheet melting

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 Antarctic, UPI reported.

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 (UEA) 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.

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

UEA researcher Helen Mallett said, "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.

“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."

The new findings, detailed in the journal Geophysical Research Letters, suggested the melting and disintegration of the ice shelf along Western Antarctica could be accelerated during the winter.

Researchers said they need to continue collecting data over a series of winters to confirm the worrisome trend.

Mallet said, "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.”

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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