When an Antarctic iceberg called A-68 broke away from Larsen C ice shelf, it revealed the possible existence of an entire ecosystem that has been hidden for up to 120,000 years.
An aerial view of the ice rift [Photo by NASA]
The iceberg A-68 is massive, weighing over one trillion tons and measuring over 5,800 square kilometers large. It is over three times the size of London and is half the size of B15, the largest known iceberg. It broke away from the Larsen C ice shelf back in July after months of slowly detaching. Now, it has revealed the possibility that scientists may find a hidden ecosystem in the space the iceberg once occupied.
As the iceberg moves further and further away from the ice shelf, a large expanse of sea floor that hasn't seen the light of day in 120,000 years will be hit by sunlight for the first time.
"It's just a fantastic, unknown area for scientific research," says marine biologist Susan Grant.
"We know very little about what might or might not be living in these types of areas, and especially how they might change over time," Grant continues. Because the site may be rife with new, previously unknown lifeforms, scientists are eager to go on an expedition—as soon as it's safe, of course.
The British Antarctic Survey (BAS), Germany’s Alfred Wegener Institute for Polar and Marine Research, and the Korea Polar Research Institute all intend to conduct studies in the area. However, the earliest that they'll get there may be 2018 or 2019. The accessibility of the area is also not the only concern for researchers; funding is also an issue. Grant says that research efforts aren't that simple to organize, but the fact that many researchers are interested in the area shows that it's definitely worth studying.
When researchers do get there, however, what should they expect to find?
No one will be able to tell for sure, not until they actually get there. Fortunately, the area also benefits from an agreement by the Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (CCAMLR). This agreement prohibits commercial activities from occurring in the area the Antarctic iceberg vacated for at least two years, giving researchers time to study the unspoiled area.
Iceberg A-68 [Photo by the European Space Agency]
This, of course, isn't the first iceberg to break away from the Antarctic peninsula. Portions have already broken away from the Larsen A and Larsen B ice shelves back in 1995 and 2002. Scientists took five and 12 years to get to Larsen A and B, and by that time, new species had already colonized the areas.
Scientists hypothesize that there will be rapid changes to the sea floor and waters in the newly-exposed area. "You'll have sunlight, you'll have phytoplankton, and you'll begin to get zooplankton and fish in there pretty quickly,” says BAS's Phil Trathan. “You'll probably also get seabirds and marine mammals are going to begin to forage in that area."
With any luck, research teams will be able to get to the area that the Antarctic iceberg vacated to see how life blooms after over a hundred thousand years without sunlight.
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