Newly exposed Antarctic marine ecosystem to be studied

A team of scientists heads to Antarctica this week to investigate a mysterious marine ecosystem
A team of scientists heads to Antarctica this week to investigate a mysterious marine ecosystem that has been hidden beneath an Antarctic ice shelf

A team of scientists, led by the British Antarctic Survey (BAS), heads to Antarctica this week to investigate a mysterious marine ecosystem that has been hidden beneath an ice shelf for up to 120,000 years.

The iceberg, known as A68, calved off from the Larsen Ice Shelf in July 2017. The scientists will collect the marine ecosystem samples from the newly-exposed seabed, which covers an area of around 5,818 km2.

The research is urgent as the ecosystem that has likely been hidden beneath the ice for thousands of years may change as sunlight starts to alter the surface layers of the sea.

The international team, from nine research institutes, leaves Stanley in the Falkland Islands on 21 February to spend three weeks in February-March 2018 on board the BAS research ship RRS James Clark Ross. Satellite monitoring is critical for the ship to navigate through the icy waters to reach this remote location.

BAS marine biologist Dr Katrin Linse said: “The calving of A68 provides us with a unique opportunity study marine life as it responds to a dramatic environmental change. It’s important we get there quickly before the undersea environment changes as sunlight enters the water and new species begin to colonise. 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.”

What will BAS investigate?

The team will investigate the area previously under the ice shelf by collecting:

  • Seafloor animals;
  • Microbes;
  • Plankton; and
  • Sediments and water samples.

The researchers will use a range of equipment including video cameras and a special sledge pulled along the seafloor to collect tiny animals. They will also record any marine mammals and birds that might have moved into the area.

How will the research benefit scientists?

The findings will provide a picture of what life under the ice shelf was like so that changes to the marine ecosystem can be tracked.

This newly-exposed marine ecosystem is the first to benefit from an international agreement made in 2016 by the commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (CCAMLR). The agreement designates special areas for scientific study in newly-exposed marine areas following the collapse of ice shelves across the Antarctic Peninsula region.

The agreement followed a European Union proposal to CCAMLR, led by BAS scientists.

Professor David Vaughan, Science Director at BAS, says: “The calving of A68 offers a new and unprecedented opportunity to establish an interdisciplinary scientific research programme in this climate sensitive region.  Now is the time to address fundamental questions about the sustainability of polar continental shelves under climate change.”

While the team mobilises for the expedition, glaciologists and remote sensing specialists continue to monitor the movement of the Larsen C Ice Shelf. In December 2017, a team from University of Leeds, UK, worked on the remaining ice shelf to investigate changes in ice structure after the calving event in order to predict future shelf stability.

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