Sea Life Beneath The Antarctic Ice Shelf Is Changing Dramatically: Global Warming To Blame?

By Carl Velasco | Nov 28, 2017 11:54 AM EST

Global warming is disrupting sea life beneath an Antarctic ice shelf, according to researchers.

Scientists who recently dove beneath the Ross Ice Shelf in Antarctica were stunned to discover unexpected changes in the seafloor ecosystem, which has dramatically changed since the last dive in 2009, according to Finnish scientist Patrick Degerman.

"Surprisingly big changes in the coastal seafloor communities have occurred in only a few years," said Degerman.

Ecosystem Shifts Underneath The Ross Ice Shelf

The discoveries were part of a diving expedition, participated by three Finnish members and six more New Zealanders. Throughout November, the team has been regularly publishing photos, videos, and other updates on Facebook that pertain to their work. They are spending six weeks at two sites on the Ross Ice Shelf, the largest in the continent. Researchers have dived and studied these sites in previous expeditions; this latest icy voyage will help them make comparisons and note changes that have occurred since.

"The first diver observations show that the changes can be unexpectedly rapid, even in Antarctica, where everything is expected to happen very slowly due to the low temperature," said Degerman.

Usually, the seafloor under ice shelves in Antarctica are enclosed in total darkness and doesn't have most of the "marine snow" that comes down from different parts of the ocean hit by the sun. Despite being only 66 feet, the animal life that thrives there are comparable to the ecosystem found in the deepest parts of Earth's oceans.

But now, that sea life is "much richer, with more species and higher densities of animals," according to Degerman. It used to be a stable, sparse, and food-deprived marine community. But now, species that used to be rarely found on the site appear to have become common.

How Global Warming Is Doing All This

Why the ecosystem changed dramatically in such a short span of time is yet to be determined, but the researchers speculate thinning ice as the culprit — and thinning ice, of course, is an effect of global warming and climate change. When ice thins, more light passes through, which results in higher productivity in the ecosystem, such as the production of algae.

The researchers want know what'll ultimately happen to the ecosystem if this thinning continues. They want to analyze food webs and compare it with ones observed in previous expeditions, when conditions of sea ice were largely different from what it is now. Doing so will reveal how food webs have changed over the last 15 years, and how this might impact the ecosystem's future.

The researchers are now heading toward the second camp on the Ross Ice Shelf, near Cape Evans on Ross Island, "for a few days of diving."

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