Ice Shelf Split Exposes Ecosystem Hidden For 120,000 Years

After the historic calving at the Larsen C ice shelf in July, scientists are now racing to explore the hidden ecosystem that has been trapped underneath the ice for about 120,000 years. If they get there fast enough, they may just get to see the environment before it changes again.

Protecting A Hidden Ecosystem

After a long period of anticipation and expectation, Delaware-sized iceberg A68 finally broke off from the Larsen C ice shelf. Since then, it has floated slowly and steadily away from the ice shelf and into the Weddell Sea. As it does, it is expected to expose 5,800 square kilometers of sea floor that has previously been covered by ice, revealing an ecosystem that has been hiding for the last 120,000 years.

Luckily, the newly exposed ecosystem is automatically protected by the Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (CCAMLR) as a Special Area for Scientific Study for an initial period of two years, though it could still be extended for 10 years.

The Struggle To Respond Quickly

Although scientists are ready and eager to immediately study the newly exposed ecosystem, it's not as easy as simply going to the location as such expeditions are often booked for months and even years in advance. Still, scientists are eager to explore the area before the environment changes again due to the sudden ice loss.

For instance, South Korean researchers originally intending to explore the South Shetland Islands are now considering diverting their mission to explore the ice shelf instead, and the British Antarctic Survey (BAS) in Cambridge has a fast-track proposal that, if approved, could send them exploring the area by early 2018. Further, a German research mission scheduled to study the Larsen C ice shelf in March of 2019 now includes a biodiversity survey.

Why The Rush?

When icebergs broke off from the Larsen A in 1995 and the Larsen B in 2002, scientists were unable to survey the area right away. A video of the Larsen B's exposed region showed signs of sulfur-eating microbes and large clams in 2005, but merely two years later, only decaying plant matter and dead clams were found. Further, a 2007 survey of the region revealed deep-sea species not found anywhere else in the Antarctic continental shelf but by then, other species were already moving in.

The importance of studying the newly exposed region lies in the area's susceptibility to fast changes. As experienced in previous ice calvings, it is crucial to survey the area before it succumbs to the exposure and ice loss. That way, we can see a part of the Earth that has been thriving away from human eyes.

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