An international team of scientists led by the British Antarctic Survey (BAS) will embark soon on a mission explore a newly exposed marine ecosystem.
The unexplored seabed was revealed last July when an iceberg, known as A68, broke away from Antarctica’s Larsen C Ice Shelf.
At nearly 6,000 square kilometres, the iceberg is four times the size of London and covered the newly exposed ecosystem for up to 120,000 years. The area could be home to a range of previously undiscovered sea creatures.
“We don’t know anything about it, it has been covered by an ice shelf that is several hundred metres thick,” Dr Katrin Linse, a marine biologist at BAS, said on Monday.
Past research has suggested there is life beneath the ice. A camera inserted by scientists on the Australian side of the Antarctic revealed a brittle star, a marine invertebrate related to the starfish.
Dr Linse, who is leading the mission, said, “The calving of A68 provides us with a unique opportunity [to] study marine life as it responds to a dramatic environmental change.” She emphasised the urgency of the project, saying, “It’s important we get there quickly before the undersea environment changes as sunlight enters the water and new species begin to colonize.”
Specifically, scientists are concerned that phytoplankton, microscopic organisms that require sunlight to live and grow, will colonize the water and alter the unspoiled ecosystem.
“We’ve put together a team with a wide range of scientific skills so that we can collect as much information as possible in a short time,” said Dr Linse. “It’s very exciting.”
The team is set to leave their base in the Falkland Islands later this month aboard their research vessel, the RRS James Clark Ross. On the three-week mission, scientists will collect samples, including microbes, plankton, seafloor animals, and sediment.
“The calving of A68 offers a new and unprecedented opportunity to establish an interdisciplinary scientific research programme in this climate sensitive region,” said BAS Science Director David Vaughan. “Now is the time to address fundamental questions about the sustainability of polar continental shelves under climate change. We need to be bold on this one. Larsen C is a long way south and there’s lots of sea ice in the area, but this is important science, so we will try our best to get the team where they need to be.”
Satellite imagery will help the team avoid the numerous icebergs in the region.
Using video cameras and an underwater sledge, the team will get an idea of what life under the ice shelf is like. “We know there is life, but we don’t know what type,” said Dr Linse. “We might have species we don’t know at all that have adapted to living in a low-food environment. This is why we want to get there now.”
In addition to new species, the team is looking to see if any life has moved into the area, including marine mammals and birds. They are scheduled to depart on 21 February.