New research warns that ongoing climate change could trigger massive submarine landslides in Antarctica, unleashing devastating tsunamis capable of causing catastrophic loss of life as far away as New Zealand and South America.
The study reveals that these submarine landslides occurred thousands of years ago and may have generated waves that travelled across the Southern Ocean to Southeast Asia.
How climate change could trigger tsunamis
The study published in the journal Nature Communications on May 18 highlights the potential for tsunamis to occur in Antarctica as a result of climate change. Submarine landslides, which can be triggered by the warming of the oceans caused by climate change, can generate tsunamis that pose a significant risk to human life.
The study suggests that millions of years ago, landslides occurred in Antarctica as the oceans warmed. The seabed was littered with slippery sediment from the death of algae blooms caused by the warm water. While the exact cause of these landslides is still uncertain, scientists believe melting glacier ice as a result of global warming is a likely factor.
As the ice sheets receded and shrank, Earth’s tectonic plates bounced upward, which could have triggered earthquakes capable of triggering landslides that would generate tsunamis.
Although the scale of these potential tsunamis is currently unknown, any tsunami occurrence is cause for concern. Scientists fear that if their hypothesis about tsunamis occurring due to melting glaciers is correct, we could face similar situations due to climate change in the future. This highlights the need to improve our understanding of how climate change affects the stability of regions such as Antarctica and the potential risks associated with tsunamis.
Discovery: Weak Sediments Beneath Antarctica
The international research team made a significant discovery by identifying layers of weak, fossilized, and biologically rich sediments beneath the seafloor in Antarctica. These sediments formed in areas where extensive submarine landslides had carved deep into the seafloor, some more than 100 meters deep.
The presence of these weak layers, made up of historical biological material, made the region susceptible to faulting during seismic events, such as earthquakes.
Furthermore, the study reveals that these weak sediment layers formed during a period when Antarctica experienced temperatures up to three degrees Celsius warmer than today, with higher sea levels and smaller ice sheets. Given current climate change trends, including rising sea levels and shrinking ice sheets, there are concerns that similar incidents could occur again in the future.
By examining sediment cores collected during expeditions in the eastern Ross Sea, the researchers discovered microscopic fossils that provided insight into climatic conditions millions of years ago and how they contributed to the formation of these weak layers of sediment beneath the Ross Sea.
Underwater Landslides: Tsunami Threat
Dr Jenny Gales, Principal Investigator from the University of Plymouth, emphasized the potential hazards associated with underwater landslides, which can trigger tsunamis and cause significant loss of life and damage to infrastructure, including undersea cables.
The study’s findings have broader implications, as they indicate the importance of scientific ocean drilling and marine geology in understanding past climate change and identifying regions at risk from natural hazards.
The researchers emphasize the need for comprehensive feasibility studies to assess the hazards posed by submarine landslides along the Antarctic margin and inform infrastructure planning. This is particularly relevant as national Antarctic programs consider the installation of submarine cables to improve communications from Antarctic research bases.
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