What is a Frost Quake?

Quck answer

An icequake is a seismic event that occurs when a sudden release of stress within or beneath an ice sheet or glacier causes the ice to crack or fracture. These events are similar to earthquakes in terms of the energy released and the resulting shaking, but they are specific to icy environments. Icequakes can be triggered by a variety of factors, including changes in temperature, melting of ice, or the movement of ice masses. They are often associated with glacial activity and can be used to study the dynamics of ice sheets and glaciers. Icequakes are important indicators of the changing climate and can help scientists understand the behavior of ice in polar regions.


Would you be interested in living in Antarctica? The average temperature of -30°F (34.4°C) may deter many from moving there. However, there are some advantages! You could have penguins as neighbors. You would experience six months of continuous sunlight. And, of course, you would get to witness one of the rarest geological occurrences on Earth almost every day. What are we referring to? Frost quakes, of course!

What is a frost quake? The name might make you think of earthquakes. In some ways, they are similar. Both frost quakes and earthquakes cause the ground to shake. They can both be measured by seismographs. The main difference between the two lies in their causes.

Many Wonder Friends already know what causes earthquakes. On the other hand, frost quakes occur when water in the ground freezes rapidly. When water freezes, it expands. As groundwater turns into ice, it fractures the surrounding soil and rocks. In some cases, it can even create cracks on the surface.

Frost quakes are also known as cryoseisms. They are common throughout Antarctica. Experts in the region state that the coldest continent on Earth has experienced hundreds of thousands of frost quakes in recent years. They have also revealed that most frost quakes occur at night when temperatures drop.

Why does Antarctica have so many frost quakes? You might think that the extremely low temperatures are to blame. However, they are actually increasing due to warmer weather. Rising temperatures cause the Antarctic ice to melt. This creates water that can freeze again and cause a frost quake.

When ice in Antarctica melts, it often forms slush. At night, as temperatures decrease, the top layer of this slush freezes rapidly. As the liquid beneath the surface begins to freeze, it expands. This leads to warping and cracking of the top layer. Consequently, a frost quake is triggered.

What does a frost quake feel like? Most of them are much weaker than earthquakes. Often, people do not feel them at all. However, they can usually hear a frost quake. It produces a loud popping or booming sound.

Do frost quakes only occur in Antarctica? No! They also happen in Greenland, particularly near glaciers. You may also hear a frost quake in Canada, as well as in the midwestern and northeastern regions of the United States.

Has a frost quake ever occurred near you? Did you hear it? They create a loud noise that is hard to miss. Perhaps one day you will have the opportunity to study frost quakes in Antarctica. Until then, listen for them on extremely cold nights. You never know when rapidly dropping temperatures could cause the ground to shake!

Try It Out

Does today’s Wonder have you FEELING excited? Try out the activities below with a friend or family member!

  • Curious about living in Antarctica? Take a look at these pictures to get a glimpse. What kinds of animals can you spot in the Earth’s coldest continent? What beautiful sights are there to see? Discuss what you learned about Antarctica with a friend or family member based on these pictures.
  • Most icequakes are more audible than they are perceptible. However, some are strong enough to be felt. Read about the incident near Lake Mendota and imagine yourself as a reporter on the evening news. What are the important details that people need to know about what happened? Write a brief paragraph summarizing the key facts of the event and then share the story with your friends or family.
  • Put yourself in the shoes of a scientist living in Antarctica. One night, you wake up to the ground shaking like never before. It turns out to be the most powerful icequake ever recorded! What happens next? Was there any damage caused by the icequake? Describe the outside scene. What steps will you take next? Write a short story detailing your adventure.

Sources of Wonder

  • https://www.britannica.com/science/cryoseism (accessed 12 Feb. 2020)
  • https://www.sciencealert.com/antarctica-is-being-rocked-by-thousands-of-ice-quakes-in-the-freezing-dead-of-night (accessed 12 Feb. 2020)
  • https://indianapublicmedia.org/amomentofscience/ice-quake.php (accessed 12 Feb. 2020)
  • https://abc7chicago.com/weather/what-is-an-ice-quake/5113172/ (accessed 12 Feb. 2020)
  • https://www.livescience.com/64915-antarctica-has-ice-quakes.html (accessed 12 Feb. 2020)

FAQ

1. What is an Icequake?

An icequake is a seismic event that occurs when stress builds up within ice and is suddenly released. It is similar to an earthquake, but instead of occurring in the Earth’s crust, it happens within ice. Icequakes can be caused by a variety of factors, such as the movement of ice sheets, the calving of glaciers, or even the cracking of frozen lakes. They can range in intensity from minor tremors to more significant shaking.

2. How are icequakes detected?

Icequakes are typically detected using seismometers, which are sensitive instruments that measure ground motion. These seismometers are often placed on or near ice sheets or glaciers to monitor any seismic activity. When an icequake occurs, the seismometer records the vibrations caused by the release of stress in the ice. Scientists can then analyze these recordings to determine the magnitude and location of the icequake.

3. Where do icequakes occur?

Icequakes can occur in any region where there is a significant amount of ice, such as polar regions or high-altitude mountain ranges. They are most commonly observed in areas with active glaciers or ice sheets, where the movement and melting of ice can create stress within the ice. Antarctica and Greenland are two of the main regions where icequakes are frequently detected.

4. What causes icequakes?

Icequakes can be caused by a variety of factors. One common cause is the movement of ice sheets or glaciers, which can generate stress within the ice and lead to cracking and shaking. Another cause is the calving of glaciers, where large chunks of ice break off and create seismic activity. The freezing and thawing of frozen lakes or rivers can also contribute to icequake activity. Additionally, volcanic activity under ice can trigger icequakes.

5. Can icequakes be dangerous?

Icequakes are generally not as dangerous as earthquakes, but they can still pose risks, especially in polar regions where research stations or infrastructure may be affected. Larger icequakes can cause cracks or avalanches in ice, potentially endangering people or equipment. In some cases, icequakes can also generate tsunamis if they occur near a body of water. However, the overall risk to human life from icequakes is relatively low.

6. How do icequakes contribute to scientific research?

Icequakes provide valuable data for scientists studying the dynamics of ice and its interaction with the Earth’s environment. By monitoring and analyzing icequake activity, researchers can gain insights into the movement of glaciers, the formation of ice shelves, and the impact of climate change on ice sheets. Icequakes can also help scientists understand the behavior of ice-covered volcanoes and the processes that occur beneath the ice. Ultimately, studying icequakes contributes to our understanding of the Earth’s cryosphere and its role in the global climate system.

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