Scientists may be able to monitor the rate of melting glaciers

Nicole Cobler

After finding a way to monitor the rate of melting glaciers by listening to the ice itself, two UT researchers presented their findings Thursday.

The project started when glaciologist Erin Pettit of the University of Alaska noticed a hissing-like noise that glaciers would make as they melted on the Alaskan coast. 

Two acoustic experts at Applied Research Labs — Preston Wilson, associate professor of mechanical engineering, and research scientist Kevin Lee — teamed up with Pettit to determine if the noise was bubbles being ejected or the cracking of the ice as it melted.

To test her hypothesis, Pettit shipped a sample of an Alaskan glacier kept in dry ice to Wilson and Lee. Wilson said the samples were broken into golf ball size pieces and placed in water that was slowly warmed. A hydrophone was placed in the water and a digital camera recorded the melting of the ice.

Lee said the video showed bubbles being released as the glacier sample melted and the hydrophone signal indicated that the sound of the bubbles coming out of the ice was what Pettit had measured in the field. 

“This is an interesting and neat result that explains the sound that are present of glaciers falling into the ocean,” Wilson said. “The rate of ice coming off of the glaciers is potentially related to climate change.”

By listening to the glaciers, the researchers hope to monitor the process of glaciers melting and create a mechanism to measure the rate at which the ice is melting. They are unsure what kind of device this would be but hope to create it in the near future.

“We would like to use this technique to monitor underwater glacier melting,” Lee said. “It could be the rate of change do to seasonal variations or longer term variations due to things like climate change.”