Crab-like Creatures Discovered 1,600 Feet Below Antarctic Ice
© AP Photo / Chris LarsenThe frigid Antarctic region is an expanse of white ice and blue waters, as pictured in March, 2017, at the U.S. research facility McMurdo Station.
© AP Photo / Chris Larsen
Antarctic ice sheets are melting at an alarming rate. A 2016 study estimated that in a worst case scenario, nearly all of the West Antarctic ice sheet could melt within 500 years and by 2100, the ocean levels may rise by 2.5 feet.
A group of New Zealand researchers has discovered a new species of crab-like creatures living 1,600 feet below the surface of Antarctica. The scientists were there to study the impact climate change is having on the freshwater river that sits hundreds of kilometers from the Ross Ice Shelf and far below the surface.
Professor and National Institute of Water and Atmospheric Research (NIWA) Physical Oceanographer, Craig Stevens called the discovery a big surprise. The researchers were drilling through the ice into the river when the small amphipods were captured on camera.
“For a while, we thought something was wrong with the camera but when the focus improved, we noticed a swarm of arthropods around 5mm in size," Stevens said. “"We were jumping up and down because having all those animals swimming around our equipment means that there's clearly an important ecosystem there.”
The creatures are in the same family as lobsters, crabs and mites and share a common ancestor with the more familiar species. The estuary was first discovered by project lead Huw Horgan, who noticed a groove in the arctic ice while looking at satellite images of the area. That groove suggested to him that there was an estuary under the ice but he didn’t expect what the research team found. Horgan said it was “like being the first to enter a hidden world.”
The team left instruments under the ice to continue observations for years. “This will tell us about the water flow, temperature and pressure at two-minute intervals so we can get a good picture of how the river behaves and how it interacts with the ocean and ice sheet,” Horgan stated.
Antarctica is one of the least studied landmasses on the planet, due largely to its inhospitable environment. Climate change has thawed much of the ice, giving scientists an opportunity to find out what secrets lie beneath it.
Both the amphipods and samples of the water have been gathered so scientists can examine them further. But discoveries like these may not be worth the cost of climate change. The continent’s ice sheets, which are breaking apart at an alarming rate, have a significant impact on global sea levels.
“We care about this because the loss of land-based ice is now the largest single contribution to sea-level rise. While some ice shelves are melting rapidly,” Professor and NIWA marine physicist Craig Stevens said, “others such as the Ross Ice Shelf are close to equilibrium. Understanding these differences is key to predicting how the ice sheet will evolve in the future.”
The research team also observed the effects of the Tongan underwater volcano. When it erupted, the team saw a significant change in pressure as the tsunami made its way through the ice cavity.
“Seeing the effect of the Tongan volcano, which erupted thousands of kilometers away, was quite remarkable,” Stevens said.