Scroll To Top

Monday, December 2, 2013

The sound of ice doesn't register at WUWT

Sou | 5:00 PM Go to the first of 8 comments. Add a comment

Anthony Watts, who runs a popular pseudo-science blog known as WUWT, doesn't want to believe that ice melts as the world warms up.  On more than one occasion Anthony's loudly proclaimed that seas won't rise any faster than they have been.  He seems to think that ice doesn't melt in the heat.

Photo Icy Bay Alaska
Icy Bay Alaska
CreditUS National Park Service

Sound has its own story to tell

Today Anthony Watts is trying to turn up the heat even more, with an article about "emotifying" melting ice.  Anthony picked up one word from a press release and blew it out of all proportion.  (The WUWT article is archived here.) The word was in this sentence:
While the symphony of melting ice might not carry the same emotional wallop as images, sound still has its own, sometimes very loud, story to tell. 
Anthony got hung up on the word "emotional" and downplayed the "story to tell".

Today's serving for his readers to wail and gnash their teeth over is work by Erin Pettit of the Glaciers Group at the University of Alaska Fairbanks.  She wanted to see if the sounds made by ice could be used to monitor ice melting.  She sent some ice down to acoustic experts in Texas and they recorded video and audio of the ice melting and matched the sounds to the bubbles escaping.

Noisy glacial fjords

From Science Daily:
“If you were underneath the water in a complete downpour, with the rain pounding the water, that’s one of the loudest natural ocean sounds out there,” she said. “In glacial fjords we record that level of sound almost continually.”
While Pettit suspected the din was caused by melting ice, she couldn’t confirm that hypothesis without a more controlled experiment. So she enlisted the help of Kevin Lee and Preston Wilson, acoustics experts from the University of Texas. Pettit sent the Texas researchers chunks of glacier, which they mounted in a tank of chilled water. Lee and Wilson recorded video and audio of the ice as it melted and were able to match sounds on the recording to the escape of bubbles from the ice.
“Most of the sound comes from the bubbles oscillating when they’re ejected,” Lee said. “A bubble when it is released from a nozzle or any orifice will naturally oscillate at a frequency that’s inversely proportional to the radius of the bubble,” he said, meaning the smaller the bubble, the higher the pitch. The researchers recorded sounds in the 1 – 3 kilohertz range, which is right in the middle of the frequencies humans hear.
The abstract of the paper concludes that passive acoustic measurements can be used to monitor melting of marine glaciers.

Acoustic events and diurnal cycle in Icy Bay, Alaska

While I wasn't able to access this latest paper, I did find an earlier paper (2012) by Erin Pettit, Jeffrey Nystuen and Shad O'Neel in the journal Oceanography.  In this paper they discuss acoustics of ice melt.  Here is Figure 1 from that paper, which shows sound pressure and changes (including diurnal patterns) in a tidewater glacial fjord.  As always, click to enlarge it:

Figure 1: Pettit12

In this earlier paper, the authors made three points about the potential this work has in regard to glaciology and oceanography (my paras):
The character of these sounds and their temporal and spatial variations provide constraints on three glacier-ice-ocean processes that previously proved difficult to quantify.
  • First, from small subaerial splashes to the largest full-thickness events, iceberg calving generates acoustic energy. Quantitative resolution of this process is important because calving can affect upstream dynamics, trigger disintegration of a floating ice shelf, or induce acceleration of grounded ice, contributing to sea level rise. 
  • Second, acoustic observations may be useful for quantifying the submarine melt rate of ice at the terminus of a glacier or in a sub-ice-shelf cavity, which is a critical boundary condition for modeling both ice flow and ocean water circulation.
  • Finally, acoustic measurements have potential to resolve variability in freshwater discharge from the subglacial hydrological system, a process that to date has completely evaded direct, quantitative measurement. Observations of sediment-laden upwelling plumes at calving margins qualitatively confirm that rivers, similar to those emanating from land-terminating glaciers, exist underneath marine-terminating glaciers. The discharge from these subglacial rivers has a diurnal cycle with occasional floods due to drainage of upstream supraglacial or subglacial lakes (Fountain and Walder, 1998).

Acoustic monitoring in the Antarctic

The paper also states that acoustics are now being used in Antarctica in the Larsen A Embayment, saying how it makes it easier to study glacier ice melts:
As this article went to press, RVIB Nathaniel B. Palmer was deploying the first hydrophone in the Larsen A Embayment (results expected in mid-2013), leveraging the efficient sound transmissions of water to study a challenging process from an easier vantage point.

Ice is alive! Erin Pettit on Antarctic ice shelves

Here is a National Geographic video with Erin Pettit, talking about Antarctic ice.  Do watch it.  It's a brilliant presentation.  It includes the sounds of ice calving and what a whale hears.  (There could hardly be a bigger contrast between science and the ignorant WUWT articles and comments as copied below.)

Girls on Ice

Erin Pettit seems like a wonderful role model for young girls.  She established a program for girls in high school - Girls on Ice.
Each year two teams of 9 teenage girls and 3 instructors spend 11 days exploring and learning about mountain glaciers and the alpine landscape through scientific field studies with professional glaciologists, ecologists, artists, and mountaineers. One team explores Mount Baker, an ice-covered volcano in the North Cascades of Washington State. The other team sleeps under the midnight sun exploring an Alaskan glacier.

From the WUWT comments

After all that wonderful science I hesitate to refer to the dark, dismal world of anti-science disinformation and denial. I'll not be deterred though.  If only one person can see the contrast between people who disdain science and real science done by real scientists in remote and dangerous parts of the world.  If just one person changes their mind and can see just how wretched are WUWT and its silly fans, then it will be worth it.

The comments at WUWT generally complied with Anthony Watts' intentions.  Most of them haven't bothered to read the article properly or try to understand the research. They are like Pavlov's dogs, responding automatically to WUWT stimuli.

Many of them were arguing how silly all those scientists are to use sound to monitor changes in ice. Others are from Anthony's Scientific Illiterati club who agitate for ignorance and the cessation of all scientific research.  The majority are of the "scientists don't know nuffin' and WUWT armchair pseudo-scientists know-it-all" variety. (Archived here.)

Eyal Porat is an obedient little WUWT-er and utters meaningless and irrelevant denierisms:
December 1, 2013 at 11:50 am
Going from pathetic to utter silliness.
The face of (post)modern science.

Pamela Gray, who has on (very) rare occasions emitted tiny sparks suggesting a well-hidden intelligence, doesn't spark at all this time when she says:
December 1, 2013 at 12:11 pm
I can imagine the next Christmas album filled with Arctic woe against a backdrop of whale songs. So which teary doe-eyed actress will they harness this time to gather our collective grief into the sound of money?

Bob Greene thinks he is being clever and says:
December 1, 2013 at 12:51 pm
The sizzle of melting glaciers? Ice sizzles when it melts? My artillery ears aren’t good enough any more to hear that. There is a before and after picture show of Alaskan glaciers circulating on Facebook. All the glaciers are gone in the after pictures. So, I suppose by around 2005-2006 (date of afters) all the glaciers in Alaska must have melted.

Noah Zark is confused by ice and says:
December 1, 2013 at 12:51 pm
Huh? When I was in Alaska’s Glacier Bay a while back, the Park Rangers aboard the ship explained that the glacier ice was blue because the air had been squeezed from it.
So is this ice from the unsqueezed upper portions of the ice?
Like Bullwinkle, “I’m so confuuuuuuuzed!”

hunter seems to think that scientists who spend money doing research are breaking the law:
December 1, 2013 at 1:08 pm
This is a nice example of how a $ billion per day is being spent on climate.
The rent seeking will not stop until the hypesters are brought to account.

Skeptik adds one-liner to the illiterati sing-a-long and says:
December 1, 2013 at 1:16 pm
How bloody desperate can they get.

alexwade is an illiterati who extols ignorance and deplores scientific research.  Alexwade says:
December 1, 2013 at 1:32 pm
Why stop at sizzling glaciers? Why not go ahead with exploding glaciers. Followed, of course, by the mandatory “it is worse than we thought” pronouncement and “more money is required” statement.

Gerry, England is an "ice age comether" but at least he seems to understand a bit of what the scientists are doing and says:
December 1, 2013 at 1:39 pm
Recording the sound of rapid arctic ice regrowth and of record antarctic ice growth will be really useful too, surely?

james griffin is of the "scientists don't know nuffin'" variety and says:
December 1, 2013 at 2:13 pm
One suspects they have never checked the daily sea ice graphs….around the same average as 79-08.
This is for james griffin:

Chart of summer sea ice extent Northern Hemisphere
Data source: Polar Research Group, University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign

Louis says "those scientists don't know what they are doing":
December 1, 2013 at 2:36 pm
Does water also make sounds when it freezes? If so, is there a way to measure which sound predominates during the course of the year? Only recording the sound of ice when it melts is like only recording the temperature when it goes up.

tty says "scientists don't know nuffin'" and "don't they know that ice makes noise". Well, tty, that's precisely what they are measuring!  As for "having to hang around in the cold" - it was when she was kayaking in the frigid waters in the far north that Erin Pettit came up with the idea of using sound to monitor changes in the ice.  How does tty think they are going to monitor the sounds if they don't do it where the ice is?  By telepathy? (tty needs to watch that National Geographic video.)
December 1, 2013 at 2:46 pm
Oh my god, what idiots. This is about the silliest ”scientific discovery” I have ever heard of. Everyone who has ever been near a glacier calving in water is familiar with this sound. By the way it’s not so much a “fizzing” as an endless series of little pops. The gas bubbles in glacier ice are under considerable pressure and burst as the ice melts.
Incidentally this has nothing to do with the sounds that moving sea ice and lake ice makes. That is a quite remarkable variety of booming, groaning and roaring sounds. Sometimes they can be rather beautiful and they certainly have a lot more “emotional wallop” than the popping of glacier ice which is about as exciting as listening to a newly opened soda bottle. However You have to hang around in the cold until they happen to record them so they are probably less popular “research objects”.

Bill Illis says there's "nothing to worry about" (extract):
December 1, 2013 at 2:56 pm
Why are people so upset about some melting glaciers. What exactly lives on glaciers. Nothing.

Gerry Dorrian says "it's not science".  And he gets hold of the wrong end of the stick with his "emotify".  The press release said it "might not carry the same emotional wallop as images", not that it does.
December 1, 2013 at 3:02 pm
Making one sound that is similar to another isn’t science, it’s what special effects technicians do for a living. I can understand why they want to “emotify” the issue, though: strong emotional content engages the limbic system to the expense of the executive frontal cortex – ie histrionics turns off thinking.

Katherine hasn't bothered to figure out what the scientists are doing, and blithely echoes the "scientists don't know nuffin'" meme:
December 1, 2013 at 3:25 pm
They didn’t know ice pops and crackles?! I hear it every time I put an ice cube in a hot drink. Talk about stating the obvious in research.

Lee, K. M., P. S. Wilson, and E. C. Pettit. "Underwater sound radiated by bubbles released by melting glacier ice." The Journal of the Acoustical Society of America 134, no. 5 (2013): 4172-4172. doi: 10.1121/1.4831292

Pettit, Erin C., Jeffrey A. Nystuen, and Shad O'Neel. "Listening to Glaciers: Passive Hydroacoustics Near Marine-Terminating Glaciers." Oceanography 25 (2012). DOI


  1. I slightly disagree with your terminology. I don't think WUWT is pseudo-science, but rather anti-science/agnotology (which happily employs pseudo-science, but often, the pruposes are different.) Try p.7 of PDF @ Crescendo to Climategate Cacophony

    1. John, you may be right. WUWT has all of these these things but yes, at heart it is anti-science.

      BTW I've added a National Geographic video with Erin Pettit, which I think shows how energising and uplifting is science. It is in complete contrast to the enervating atmosphere at WUWT, with its dark, dismal, ignorant anti-science stance.

    2. This is the relevant passage from John's research paper (see link in his comment):

      Agnotology was coined by Stanford‘s Robert N. Proctor [PRO2008] to describe the deliberate production of ignorance and doubt. When applied to scientific topics, it might be called anti-science, employed especially when research results threaten strong economic or ideological interests. It is rarely intended to convince field professionals, but to confuse the public and especially decision-makers in government and business. Many modern anti-science PR tactics were created for tobacco companies and then used thereafter, often by the same people and organizations, especially in fighting environmental. Many scientists are unused to dealing with such tactics, since most scientific fields face no organized anti-science.

      The Internet offers new opportunities for anti-science amplification, using networks of media, websites, blogs, and public helpers. The practitioners are very experienced.

      There is more at the link above.

    3. What does the sound of 600,000 bats make when they hit a windturbine?

    4. "What does the sound of 600,000 bats make [sic] when they hit a windturbine?"

      The same sound that 600,000 Wuwtians make when they simultaneously face-palm themselves after realising with much humbled embarrassment and shame that the professional scientists were correct all along...

      Bernard J.

    5. Tying my previous comment to the OT, I like the term 'Wuwtians' because it nicely encapsulates their subscription to the agnotological woo of which they are so enamoured.

      Bernard J.

  2. On the matter of listening to ice, I once discussed this with a fellow postgrad during a lab session we were supervising. The undergrads were using ice baths and the subject of the noise came up, and after the lab finished I went to the library to do some follow-up reading (which indicates how many years ago it was - these days it's done from one's desk!). At the time I found after much looking this extract of a conference:

    which took all of about 10 seconds to find this time around, and which shows how much the internet has changed our lives.

    It also shows that the subject has a long and respectable history, so I don't know what Watts is getting his knickers so knotted about.

    Bernard J.

  3. Extract? Oops, I meant 'abstract'.

    And there are two others on the PDF along the same lines, on just that single page from the proceedings, so it was obviously a popular subject at the conference.

    Bernard J.


Instead of commenting as "Anonymous", please comment using "Name/URL" and your name, initials or pseudonym or whatever. You can leave the "URL" box blank. This isn't mandatory. You can also sign in using your Google ID, Wordpress ID etc as indicated. NOTE: Some Wordpress users are having trouble signing in. If that's you, try signing in using Name/URL or OpenID. Details here.

Click here to read the HotWhopper comment policy.