Seals Help Researchers Discover New Seawater Pathways in Antarctica

By: Sam Watanuki | Published: Jun 19, 2024

Researchers have uncovered new seawater pathways in Antarctica with the help of seals equipped with sensors. These seals provided critical data about ocean temperature, salinity, and currents.

The discovery has significant implications for understanding how melting ice shelves interact and affect global sea levels.

Warm Water's Role in Melting Ice Shelves

Warm water flowing underneath ice shelves accelerates their melting, contributing to rising sea levels. This process doesn’t occur in isolation. Ocean currents distribute the meltwater around the Antarctic coast, impacting downstream ice shelves.

Water seen around large icebergs and mountains in Antarctica in the daytime.

Source: henrique setim/Unsplash

Understanding these currents is helps to predict future sea level changes.

The Bellingshausen Sea: A Crucial Region

The Bellingshausen Sea, located near South America, is the first point where warm Atlantic and Pacific waters reach the ice shelves.

ce covering the Bellingshausen Sea, off the coast of Antarctica

Source: NASA/Michael Studinger/Wikimedia Commons

This region has been understudied, but recent research has highlighted its importance. As the warm water melts the ice shelves, it cools and becomes fresher, altering its melting capacity.

Interconnected Ice Shelves

Ice shelves in Antarctica are interconnected systems. Melting in one area can influence processes in another, creating a domino effect.

A white and blue ice glacier seen in water in the daytime in Antarctica.

Source: Cassie Matias/Unsplash

To predict changes accurately, researchers must understand how these systems interact. “What happens in one ice shelf changes the processes at another,” says Caltech’s Andy Thompson.

Advanced Research Techniques

Researchers have used advanced techniques to study these processes. Underwater autonomous vehicles and sensor-equipped seals have been instrumental in gathering data.

A photograph of two men taking samples of ice in the Arctic

Source: Wikimedia

This combination has provided a comprehensive view of the Antarctic seas, revealing previously unknown currents and underwater features.

The Role of Marine Mammals

Seals play a vital role in this research. As part of the Marine Mammals Exploring the Oceans Pole to Pole (MEOP) program, seals are equipped with small sensors that measure various oceanic properties.

A photograph of melting ice in the polar region of the world

Source: Freepik

This collaboration has been ongoing for decades, providing valuable data to researchers worldwide.


Discovering the Seal Trough

The data collected by seals led to the discovery of a previously unknown underwater trough, now named Seal Trough.

An aerial satellite image of the Thwaites Glacier.

Source: Contains modified Copernicus Sentinel data 2021/Wikimedia Commons

This feature influences the flow of currents, similar to how canyons on land guide rivers. Understanding such features is crucial for mapping meltwater pathways.


Mapping Meltwater Pathways

Researchers identified two distinct meltwater pathways originating from different ice shelves.

Melting polar ice caps. The ice caps are broken up and are in the water. Mountains with snow on top are in the background.

Source: Asile Clairette/Unsplash

One pathway follows the coast, trapping warm waters at depth and increasing melting at downstream ice shelves. The other pathway returns to the open ocean, carrying cooler, fresher water away.


Predicting Future Sea Level Rise

This research is a major step in understanding how individual ice shelves influence larger Antarctic circulation.

An image taken of the vast South Pacific Ocean

Source: Wikimedia

As the oceans continue to warm, improved knowledge of these processes is essential to predict future rates of global sea level rise accurately.


International Collaboration

The study is a result of international collaboration, involving researchers from several institutions.

Two Person in Long-sleeved Shirt Shakehand

Source: Cytonn Photography/Pexels

This cooperation has been vital in collecting and analyzing data, highlighting the importance of global teamwork in addressing climate change.


Funding and Support

The research received funding from prestigious organizations such as the National Science Foundation, NASA, and the European Research Council.

A photograph of ice in Alaska

Source: David McNew/Getty Images

These grants support the ongoing study of Antarctic ice shelves and their impact on global sea levels.


Looking Ahead

As climate change continues to impact the planet, understanding Antarctic ice melt is more important than ever.

A close-up view of massive ice glacier mountains in Antarctica.

Source: Torsten Dederichs/Unsplash

Continued research and international collaboration will be crucial in developing strategies to mitigate and adapt to rising sea levels.