Acoustic research in Alaska’s Icy Bay and other glacier ice-filled waters found that the fizz created by the release of pressurized air bubbles within glacier ice makes fjords the noisiest places in the ocean.
“The glacier fjord sound on a typical day for Icy Bay is louder than being in the water beneath a torrential downpour, which really surprised me,” said Pettit, a researcher at the University of Alaska Fairbanks.
In a paper published in Geophysical Research Letters, a journal of the American Geophysical Union, Pettit and fellow researchers speculate that one reason harbor seals flock to fjords with tidewater glaciers is because noisy icebergs provide acoustic camouflage, protecting seals from transient killer whales that hunt by sound.
In July 2009, the researchers deployed underwater microphones 70 meters deep in Icy Bay, a fjord near the top of the Alaska Panhandle just 4 miles from 18,008-foot Mount St. Elias. They also sampled sound at nearby Yakutat Bay and at Andvord Bay in Antarctica.
Researcher Jeff Nystuen of the University of Washington’s Applied Physics Laboratory, who had had used hydrophones to measure the underwater sound of rainfall, quickly realized the significance, Pettit said. “He was kind of blown away when I showed him the results of our data set,” she said. “He’s like, ‘This is really, really loud.’ ”
Colleagues at the University of Texas at Austin conducted laboratory tests in acoustic tanks with Alaska glacier ice to find out how bubbles make noise. The snow compressing to ice on a glacier creates bubbles of nearly the same size under the same pressure, Pettit said. That makes for consistent sound underwater.
She wonders what will happen when the glaciers retreat from the ocean. “That transition is going to be the one that’s going to really impact the ecosystem in terms of the sound environment,” she said.