A mission to map the hidden ocean floor
A Museum scientist will be one of the first to examine a newly exposed part of the Antarctic sea floor.
Beneath the vast ice sheets and frozen landmasses of Antarctica is a world little known to scientists.
The oceans in the polar regions are cold, inhospitable and mysterious. Experts are still trying to determine how many animals might live in Antarctica, how deep the seafloor is and how this part of the planet might change in the future.
Any surveying mission to Antarctica holds potential to discover much that is new to science. But in the summer of 2017, an even bigger opportunity to find new life presented itself: one of the biggest-ever icebergs broke away from the peninsula, allowing the ocean floor beneath it to become accessible to experts for the first time.
Museum deep-sea expert Dr Adrian Glover is preparing to travel to the area with British Antarctic Survey. A team of about 20 scientists will carry out an urgent surveying mission of this newly revealed part of ocean, which had been hidden under ice for 120,000 years.
He says, 'All being well, we will be the first scientists to survey that region of the seafloor where the ice has broken away.
'Now that the surface ocean is exposed, sunlight will increase food availability and the area will become an amazing model for how new ecosystems form. There will be more of this with increasing climate change.'
A movement of ice
The area that Dr Glover and the team will sample is where a giant iceberg broke away from an ice shelf called Larsen C in 2017. The broken-off piece has been named A68, and it was four times the size of London. It exposed 5,818 square kilometres of seabed and left the Larsen C ice shelf about 12% smaller.
An international team of scientists will travel there in February on a research ship called the RRS James Clark Ross. Glover will work jointly on the invertebrate animals with Swedish deep-sea biologist Dr Thomas Dahlgren, who is based at the University of Gothenburg.
The researchers want to discover how this marine ecosystem will respond to environmental change in a climate-sensitive region. They'll spend three weeks aboard the ship, and Glover will spend eight days taking samples at Larsen C.
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).
Special Areas for Scientific Study will be designated in newly exposed marine areas after ice shelves like this one collapse in Antarctica.
Marine biologist Dr Katrin Linse from British Antarctic Survey is leading the mission. She says, 'It’s exciting to think about what we might find.
'Using a range of different techniques, our multidisciplinary approach by an international team will examine the marine ecosystem spanning the water column from the surface of the ocean all the way to the seabed and the sediment.'
Dr Glover added, 'I expect to find species that are new to science, and plenty of deep sea animals and food there that has been brought in by ocean currents.'
Glover will fly from London to the Falkland Islands to join the expedition team.
It will take four to five days' sailing from the Falklands to get to the area, and progress could be hampered by sea ice. Satellite monitoring will help the vessel find a path through the ice.
Scientists are keen to reach the Larsen C ice shelf as quickly as possible, as there is a risk that the iceberg may move again and cover the waters it exposed in the summer.
Dr Glover says, 'The ice could move again and we could miss our opportunity, which is why the expedition has been organised quite quickly. It's fantastic to have this opportunity to explore, but we are keeping our fingers crossed that conditions will stay favourable.'
Museum scientists go on regular expeditions to the Antarctic Peninsula and the South Atlantic Ocean.
- by Katie Pavid