Scientists discover Antarctic marine life trapped under ice for half a century

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German researchers have uncovered marine life along the Antarctic seafloor for the first time in decades after a massive iceberg calved from the continent’s ice sheet last month. 

The iceberg, dubbed A-74, detached about two weeks ago and began to drift through the Weddell Sea. 

As the only research vessel nearby, the research icebreaker Polarstern seized on the opportunity to explore, penetrating the gap between A-74 and the Brunt Ice Shelf.

Their team was comprised of scientists from the Alfred Wegener Institute for Polar and Marine Research (AWI), Helmholtz Centre for Polar and Marine Research (AWI) and other international partners, according to a Wednesday news release.

“Once-in-a-lifetime” photographs captured by the crew revealed an “amazing level of biodiversity and sediment samples taken from the seafloor are “expected to provide more detailed insights into the ecosystem.”

In addition, geochemical analysis of the water samples collected will allow conclusions to be made regarding its nutrient content and ocean currents.

Video footage and an extensive collection of photos taken using the OFOBS (Ocean Floor Observation and Bathymetry System) exposed life deep below the surface and numerous organisms surrounded by a silty landscape.

The majority of those creatures were filterers, although the experts also found sea cucumbers, sea stars, mollusks, at least five fish species and two squid species.

Hundreds of marine species live in Antarctic waters but, as LiveScience reported Friday, the presence of stationary filter feeders that eat phytoplankton — which rely on sunshine for photosynthesis — meters under the ice was surprising. 

AWI noted in the release that the research was essential to better understanding calving events and that it’s rare to be near a region that becomes ice-free and in contact with sunlight — especially for icebergs as large as A-74. 

The team also stationed research buoys in the area in order to gather data about the water’s temperature, salinity and ocean current speeds. 

It’s a move they believe will help scientists make more accurate climate models for the region as the Antarctic continues to lose ice mass at alarming rates.

“This data forms the basis for our simulations of how the ice sheet will respond to climate change. As a result, we can say with a higher degree of certainty how quickly the sea level will rise in the future – and provide the political community and society at large with sound data for making decisions on necessary climate change adaptation measures,” physical oceanographer and AWI expedition head Dr. Hartmut Hellmer said.

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