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120,000 Years in Hiding: Expedition to Explore Antarctica’s Newly Exposed Seabed

Scientists to explore life up to now hidden beneath Antarctic ice shelf

An international team of scientists heads to Antarctica this week to investigate a mysterious marine ecosystem that’s been hidden beneath an Antarctic ice shelf for up to 120,000 years.

The iceberg known as A68, which is four times the size of London, calved off from the Larsen Ice Shelf in July 2017. The scientists will travel by ship to collect samples from the newly exposed seabed, which covers an area of around 5,800 km2. Ship expeditions have tried to reach the area without success. It is an urgent mission. The ecosystem that’s likely been hidden beneath the ice for thousands of years may change as sunlight starts to alter the surface layers of the sea.

The team, led by the Alfred Wegener Institute, Helmholtz Centre for Polar and Marine Research (AWI) in Germany, leaves Punta Arenas on 9th February to spend over nine weeks on board the AWI research ship RV Polarstern. Satellite monitoring is critical for the ship to navigate through the sea-ice covered waters to reach this remote location, which sits east of the Antarctic Peninsula. Dr Boris Dorschel, bathymetrist at the Alfred Wegener Institute, is leading the mission. He says: “The expedition to Larsen C is an unprecedented opportunity to conduct international and interdisciplinary scientific research in this climate sensitive region. Now is the time to address fundamental questions about polar continental ice shelves under climate change.”

The chief scientist adds: "Larsen C is a long way south and even in these times of record lows in Antarctic Sea ice, there’s lots of sea ice in our study area. But this is important science, so we will try our best to get there to unlock the secrets of Larsen C and A68, supported by high-definition satellite data and the option of surveying the sea ice by Polarstern’s helicopters.”

The team will investigate the area previously under the ice shelf by collecting seafloor animals, microbes, plankton, sediments and water samples using a range of equipment including video cameras and a special sledge pulled along the seafloor to collect tiny animals. They will also map the seafloor using sonar.

Marine biologist, Dr Huw Griffiths from British Antarctic Survey, is leading some of the seafloor biology research. He says: “The calving of A68 is a unique opportunity to study marine life that is facing dramatic environmental change. A68 is one of the largest icebergs ever recorded and gives us an extraordinary chance to explore a world that we know virtually nothing about, which is normally hidden under hundreds of meters of ice."

“This environment has been without sunlight for thousands of years and is likely to be home to a specially adapted community of animals that can cope with very little food. The break off of this enormous iceberg will have a similar effect to suddenly taking the roof off a cave. For the first time in thousands of years microscopic plants will be able to bloom at the surface, changing the food chain, and allowing different species to colonize and take over.”

Story issued jointly by the Press Office at British Antarctic Survey and Alfred Wegener Institute

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