Climate change is a complex issue, and scientists are constantly working to uncover new evidence that helps us understand the dangers we face. But sometimes, clues to a potential disaster can come from the most unlikely of places. Such is the case with a curious seal and a wayward robot that helped scientists uncover a potential catastrophe waiting to happen.
In 2011, scientists tagged a southern elephant seal on the remote island of Kerguelen in the southern Indian Ocean. The seal, a massive 11 feet long and weighing nearly 1,800 pounds, was fitted with an ocean sensor, a device that is barely noticed by the seals but has proven vital to scientific research.
Elephant seals like this one swim more than 1,500 miles south from Kerguelen to Antarctica, where they often forage on the seafloor, diving to depths that can exceed a mile below the surface.
As summer in the Southern Hemisphere peaked, the seal made a standard Antarctic journey but went in an unusual direction. In March 2011, he appeared just offshore from a vast oceanfront glacier called Denman, where elephant seals are not generally known to go.
He dived into a deep trough in the ocean bed, roughly half a mile below the surface. And that is when something striking happened: He provided early evidence that Denman Glacier could be a significant threat to global coastlines.
The seal swam through unusually warm water, just below the freezing point, but in the Antarctic, that is warm. Given its salt content and the extreme depths and pressures involved, such warm water can destroy large amounts of ice. And it certainly could have been doing so at Denman.
At the time, Denman had received little scientific attention, and researchers did not appear to have seen the significance of the seal data. The logistics of studying the glacier directly are also challenging, as it lies between two Antarctic research bases and is often locked in by extensive sea ice. But with this new information, scientists are taking a closer look at Denman and its potential danger to global coastlines.
Climate change is a global problem, and we all have a role in addressing it. This story serves as a reminder of the importance of ongoing research and the unexpected ways discoveries can be made. By supporting scientific studies and taking steps to reduce our carbon footprint, we can work towards a sustainable future for all.
This article by Nicholas Vincent was first published by OneGreenPlanet on 5 February 2023.
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