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Antarctica Expedition To Explore Underwater Ecosystem Hidden For 120,000 Years

Robo drones to study melting Antarctic ice shelf impact on sea levels
Researchers from the British Antarctic Survey are headed to the remote Larsen C ice shelf to study a marine ecosystem that was once hidden and where organisms used to thrive without sunlight. What do researchers want to find out?  ( Mario Tama | Getty Images )

A Delaware-sized iceberg broke off from Antartica’s Larsen C ice shelf last summer unveiling a once-inaccessible marine ecosystem that stayed hidden for 120,000 years.

How Marine Life Responds To Environmental Changes

Now, a team of scientists from the British Antarctic Survey will explore this seabed ecosystem. Mission leader Katrin Linse, a British Antarctic Survey marine biologist, said that the calving of the iceberg dubbed A68 offers researchers a rare opportunity to study marine life as it responds to dramatic changes in the environment.

The researchers will spend three weeks from February to March aboard the RRS James Clark Ross ship, navigating the cold waters to reach the remote Larsen C ice shelf, from which a 2,240 square-mile iceberg broke off.

An Urgent Mission

Linse said that they have to get there before the underwater environment changes as sunlight starts to enter the water and new species start to colonize the area.

The organisms that lived below the iceberg had really low food levels. They also had no exposure to light.

Researchers said that the dramatic shift in the environment may lead to new species that feed on phytoplankton and green food to migrate into the newly exposed sea, which can transform the diversity of the species and competition in the area. The species that have lived in the area for a long time may not be capable of outcompeting the new species, causing them to disappear, which can change the whole ecosystem.

Linse and colleagues will collect microbes, seafloor animals, plankton, as well as sediments and water samples to study the area once hidden under the ice shelf. The researchers will also record birds and marine mammals that may have moved into the area.

“I expect to find animals similar to animals we find in the extreme deep sea, so animals that are not used to feeding on green food, because there was no phytoplankton in the water above,” Linse said. “We don’t know until we’ve seen it.”

Linse and colleagues will also use a range of equipment, which includes cameras and a special sledge designed to be pulled along the seabed to collect small animals.

Potential Ties To Climate Change

Besides conducting studies on the life in the region, the research team, which include climate scientists, also wants to find out whether or not climate change induced the breaking apart of the Larsen Ice Shelf.

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