Mysterious Ecosystem Exposed After Antarctica's Giant Iceberg Broke Free
Antarctic Ice Shelf | Wikimedia Commons | commons.wikimedia.org

One of the most remote places on Earth, Antarctica, just revealed a mysterious ecosystem it has hidden beneath its massive ice shelf for thousands of years!

In July this year, it was reported that one of the largest icebergs ever recorded has broken free of Antarctica.

Part of the ice shelf that broke free from the Larsen C Ice Shelf was estimated by scientists to be the size of Delaware with a volume that equals those of the Lake Michigan. What’s more interesting is that the huge pile of ice has exposed a highly mysterious ecosystem.

Scientists were left stunned after the phenomenon revealed a precious marine ecosystem buried under the ice for, what they estimated to be, around 120,000 years.

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Right now, marine life researchers and biologists are racing to secure a visit to the newly revealed area of the Southern Ocean as soon as it’s deemed safe to sail there.

Apparently, they are all hoping to get into the 5,800-square kilometer region that will be exposed by the iceberg as it moves away into the Weddell Sea.

Getting into the area soon enough will let scientists study the mysterious ecosystem shielded by ice shelf before the lost of the ice causes changes to its environment.

The Mysterious Ecosystem, Another New Wonder of the World

Julian Gutt from the Alfred Wegener Institute for Polar and Marine Research in Germany told Nature:

“I cannot imagine a more dramatic shift in environmental conditions in any ecosystem on Earth.”

The now giant iceberg, known as A-68, is drifting and disintegrating northwards away from its former moorings, the Larsen C ice shelf. This event is slowly exposing a huge expanse of the ocean and seabed to sunlight, apparently for the first time since the last inter-glacial period of the Earth.

For now, scientists just have to wait. It’s quite difficult for Antarctic scientists to respond to such events since polar-research vessels must be booked months earlier, if not years.

Gutt’s team that will be led by Boris Dorschel, head of bathymetry at the Alfred Wegener Institute is already scheduled to visit the Larsen area in March 2019.

Iceberg that broke away from the Larsen C ice shelf and exposed the mysterious ecosystem beneath
Copernicus Sentinel-1 via Bas | Nature | nature.com

The possibility of reaching the region this Antarctic summer now lies with the British Antarctic Survey (BAS) in Cambridge. According to Nature:

“The agency has a fast-track proposal sparked by the calving event, led by BAS senior biodiversity scientist Katrin Linse, to send a research vessel in early 2018. The proposal is now being considered by a British funding council. South Korean researchers are also considering whether to divert a mission currently planned for the South Shetland Islands, says Hyoung Chul Shin, a biological oceanographer at the Korea Polar Research Institute in Incheon.”

In case the proposal succeeded, the BAS team would be the first group of marine biologists that would be able to explore the mysterious ecosystem since the break-up of the ice.

It should be noted that every time a shelf of ice breaks off in the polar region, new species are being discovered. That is if marine biologists are daring enough to dive underneath the ice cover itself. This time around, it won’t be any different.

Soon, the region exposed by the drifting iceberg would be filled with life, if it hasn’t yet. Evidently, all species that once can’t live under the harsh conditions of the ice shelf will find that the zone exposed to the sunlight is more habitable now than before.

This is the primary reason why the BAS and other marine researchers are working to ensure that the area would be designated as a Special Area of Scientific Study. A part of the press release published by BAS read:

“An international agreement is now in place to give special protection to the area of ocean left exposed when one of the largest icebergs ever recorded broke free from the Larsen C Ice Shelf in July this year. The iceberg – known as A68 – is starting to move north, and it will leave behind a 5,818 kmarea of seabed exposed to open marine conditions. Much of this area may have been ice-covered since the last inter-glacial period around 120,000 years ago, providing a unique opportunity for scientists to study how marine life responds to this dramatic change.

This area is the first to benefit from an international agreement in 2016 by the Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (CCAMLR), to designate Special Areas for Scientific Study in newly-exposed marine areas following the collapse or retreat of ice shelves across the Antarctic Peninsula region. The agreement came following a European Union proposal to CCAMLR, led by British Antarctic Survey (BAS) scientists Dr. Susie Grant and Dr. Phil Trathan.”

This coming November 18th and 19th, biologists will be meeting at the Florida State University’s Coastal and Marine Laboratory in St. Teresa to discuss research priorities regarding the Larsen C and its future exposed regions.

What sort of species do you think will be discovered beneath the vast ocean being exposed by the break-up of the Larsen C ice shelf? Let us know your thoughts in the comment section below!

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