Larsen C Iceberg revealed waters unexposed for at least 120,000 years
In mid-July, one of the largest icebergs ever observed broke off the Larsen C Ice Shelf on the Antarctic Peninsula. The iceberg, known as A-68, did not come as a surprise, since scientists were tracking the spread of a lengthening fissure in the ice shelf for years before it finally broke off an ice chunk about the size of Delaware.
Since it broke away, the iceberg has been slowly pushing away from the ice shelf, revealing a section of open ocean previously covered with thick ice at the surface for about 120,000 years. Now, a group of scientists supported by the British Antarctic Survey, or BAS, is en route to survey the newly-exposed ocean waters before new species move in and establish themselves, changing the ecosystem forever.
These scientists want to know more about the species that live in these cold, dark waters, and how the ecosystem is already changing now that it’s exposed to more sunlight. Examining this ecosystem will be no easy task, considering how expansive it is, encompassing more than 2,000 square miles.
Precious little is known about sea life on the Antarctic floor as well as below ice sheets, so the new studies about to get underway could provide researchers with discoveries of entirely new — and likely rather strange looking — cold, dark water species.
According to the BAS, the team of scientists hails from nine research institutes, and will spend late February through March aboard a research ship operated by the agency.
BAS marine biologist Katrin Linse is heading up the mission. “The calving of A-68 provides us with a unique opportunity to study marine life as it responds to a dramatic environmental change,” she said in a statement. “It’s important we get there quickly before the undersea environment changes as sunlight enters the water and new species begin to colonize.”
The team will use video cameras and specialized equipment dragged across the seafloor to collect tiny animals, to get a far better idea of what life under the ice shelf was like before the iceberg broke off.
This marine area will benefit from an international agreement reached in 2016, which designated areas for scientific study in newly-exposed marine areas following the retreat of ice shelves or their collapse as well.
“The calving of A-68 offers a new and unprecedented opportunity to establish an interdisciplinary scientific research program in this climate sensitive region,” said David Vaughan, science director at BAS, in a statement. “Now is the time to address fundamental questions about the sustainability of polar continental shelves under climate change.”
While the iceberg calving event itself has not been blamed on human-caused global warming, there are fears that it left the Larsen C Ice Shelf in a weaker state than it was in before, making it more susceptible to increasing air and sea temperatures.
Its neighbors, Larsen A and Larsen B, both disintegrated by the end of 2002 due in large part to global warming, suggesting a potentially grim fate for Larsen C.