Microphones have been thrown into the sea off Greenland to record melting icebergs

An expedition of scientists and an artist uses underwater microphones in the sea off Greenland to record and preserve the soundscape of melting icebergs.

The hydrophones will record sounds every hour for two years before being collected, harvested for data and the recordings converted into an acoustic composition.

The instruments will be lowered to different altitudes and temperatures to record earthquakes, landslides, wildlife, pollution and meltwater, creating an archive of the “memory of the ocean”.

An iceberg off the coast of Greenland.
An iceberg off the coast of Greenland. Photo: Siobhan McDonald

“What you hear in the hydrophones is a snapshot in time,” Siobhán McDonald, an Irish artist, said Tuesday from the expedition ship. “It’s like a time capsule.”

The expedition has installed five berths with hydrophones – and a total of 12 berths – in the Davis Strait, an arctic gateway between Greenland and Canada.

McDonald plans to work with a composer to incorporate the recordings, due to be collected in 2024, into an acoustic installation exploring humanity’s impact on the ocean. She will also make paintings, sculptures and other works based on the trip.

An oceanographic anchorage used on a previous expedition.
An oceanographic anchorage used on a previous expedition. Photo: Siobhan McDonald

“I am interested in acoustic pollution. Sea levels are rising and I think that will affect the sonic range and overall biodiversity. Sound is fundamental to the oceans and arctic animals. Hearing is fundamental to communication, breeding, feeding, and ultimately survival. It speaks to the need to pay attention to the pollution we are causing to the ecosystems around us.”

Siobhán Mcdonald on a previous expedition to Greenland.
Siobhán Mcdonald on a previous expedition to Greenland. Photo: Ashley Gordon/Siobhan McDonald

Funded by the US National Science Foundation’s polar program, the 21-strong research team from Europe, the US and Canada spent four weeks at sea to study sea salinity, whale migration, ice floes and other phenomena. The material is used for scientific analysis and works of art such as paintings, sculptures and films.

The expedition experienced strong winds, rain and snow and coincided with the calving of the Nuup-Kangerlua Glacier. On October 22, the researchers will return to the port of Nuuk in western Greenland.

The initiative came amid growing evidence that the melting Greenland ice cap — trillions of tons have poured into the ocean — will cause sea levels to rise sharply.

Fossil fuel burning results will cause a minimal rise of 27 cm (10.6 in) from Greenland alone, according to a recent study published in the journal Nature Climate Change. A separate study last year found that a significant portion of the Greenland ice sheet was close to a tipping point, after which accelerated melting would be inevitable even if global warming were halted.

McDonald said she noticed less ice compared to her last visit to Greenland in 2017. “The collapse of the Greenland ice cap is one of the turning points I’m working with, a time that may have already passed.”

Even so, marine life seemed to be adapting, she said. “One important thing we discovered is that life is still thriving up here in the Arctic. Although the seascape may look barren, it is full of possibilities. Some of the hydrophones from another expedition came back looking like alien creatures shuffling out of the Greenland ocean. Lichens and tiny plants lived in symbiosis with rusted surfaces.”

McDonald also studied the release of methane from melting permafrost and similarities between Irish peat bogs and soils exposed by receding glaciers, for an exhibition at Model, an arts center in County Sligo, next year.

Graphic mixing glacial ice and methane ink.
Graphic mixing glacial ice and methane ink. Photo: Siobhan McDonald

The McDonald’s project received support from the European Commission, Arts Council of Ireland, Trinity College Dublin, Monaghan County Council, Creative Ireland and the non-profit organizations GLUON and the Ocean Memory Project.

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