Antarctica is home to a "lost world" of fish and other marine life, discovered living nearly half a mile beneath the ice cover on the frozen continent.
Researchers used a hot water drill to bore through approximately 2,500 feet of ice. The goal of the drilling was to reach the grounding zone - where land, ice, and water all meet - for the first time ever.
"I have been investigating these types of environments for much of my career, and although I knew it would be difficult, I had been wanting to access this system for years because of its scientific importance," Ross Powell of Northern Illinois University and chief scientist with the Whillans Ice Stream Subglacial Access Research Drilling (WISSARD) project, said.
The discovery of life far beneath the ice of Antarctica was made in the Whillans Ice Stream, a fast-moving river of ice, moving from the West Antarctic Ice Sheet (WAIS) to the Ross Sea. Drilling took place around 530 miles from the edge of the Ross Ice Shelf.
Water at these depths in the Antarctic is colder than ice - having an average temperature of just 28 degrees Fahrenheit. The thick ice cover also prevents light from reaching the marine environments, darkening the water. These conditions were thought to make the discovery of life there unlikely. Researchers were surprised to find jellyfish, crustaceans, and various species of fish living in the harsh environment.
"It is fascinating to see so much marine vertebrate and invertebrate life so far away from the open ocean and right where the West Antarctic Ice Sheet goes afloat," Slawek Tulaczyk of the University of California, Santa Cruz, said.
The Submersible Capable of under Ice Navigation and Imaging (Deep SCINI) is a remotely operated vehicle (ROV) developed for the project. The vehicle was used to explore around 4,300 square feet of area around the location where the drill broke through the ice.
Life has been found beneath ice sheets in the past, but this was the furthest south that such a rich ecosystem has ever been discovered. The research team hopes data they collected will reveal the sources of carbon and oxygen which allow the animals to thrive.
The global ocean is believed to end at a latitude around 85 degrees south. The locations where this marine ecosystem was discovered is just 43 miles short of that line. This discovery could provide biologists with new information about how life can adapt to such harsh, frigid environments.