Undersea earthquakes shake up climate science

by C. Rotter, Sep 20, 2020 in WUWT

Despite climate change being most obvious to people as unseasonably warm winter days or melting glaciers, as much as 95 percent of the extra heat trapped on Earth by greenhouse gases is held in the world’s oceans. For that reason, monitoring the temperature of ocean waters has been a priority for climate scientists, and now Caltech researchers have discovered that seismic rumblings on the seafloor can provide them with another tool for doing that.

In a new paper publishing in Science, the researchers show how they are able to make use of existing seismic monitoring equipment, as well as historic seismic data, to determine how much the temperature of the earth’s oceans has changed and continues changing, even at depths that are normally out of the reach of conventional tools.

They do this by listening for the sounds from the many earthquakes that regularly occur under the ocean, says Jörn Callies, assistant professor of environmental science and engineering at Caltech and study co-author. Callies says these earthquake sounds are powerful and travel long distances through the ocean without significantly weakening, which makes them easy to monitor.

Wenbo Wu, postdoctoral scholar in geophysics and lead author of the paper, explains that when an earthquake happens under the ocean, most of its energy travels through the earth, but a portion of that energy is transmitted into the water as sound. These sound waves propagate outward from the quake’s epicenter just like seismic waves that travel through the ground, but the sound waves move at a much slower speed. As a result, ground waves will arrive at a seismic monitoring station first, followed by the sound waves, which will appear as a secondary signal of the same event. The effect is roughly similar to how you can often see the flash from lightning seconds before you hear its thunder.