The Break-Up Of A Colossal Ice Shelf Exposed An Ancient And Mysterious Ecosystem

After months and months of almost but not quite breaking away from Antarctica, a trillion-tonne chunk of the Larsen C Ice Shelf finally detached itself and drifted off into the Southern Ocean. As it so happens, this chilly divorce may have been a good thing, as it’s exposed a brand-new, never before seen ecosystem hiding just beneath the waves.

To be honest, it’s never ideal when ice shelves disintegrate. They expose the glaciers behind them to open waters, where they can jump in and push up sea levels.

However, researchers working at various institutions, from the British Antarctic Survey (BAS), Germany’s Alfred Wegener Institute for Polar and Marine Research, and the Korea Polar Research Institute have all said that they intend to conduct biological expeditions to the exposed area.

As reported by Nature News, as soon as it’s safe to sail there, all three will venture into the area. The earliest anyone will reach it will be 2019 in what will essentially be an exhilarating zoological race to the finish.

This area has been shielded from the surface for as long as 120,000 years. Every time an ice shelf breaks off, or anytime anyone is daring enough to dive underneath the ice cover itself, new species are discovered – and this time is likely to be no different.

Additionally, species that normally can’t live in such harsh conditions will have found that, since being exposed to sunlight, the zone is far more habitable than it used to be. With sunlight, you get photosynthesizing plankton. When they die, their nutrients fall to the seafloor – food for plenty of aquatic lifeforms there.

“I cannot imagine a more dramatic shift in environmental conditions in any ecosystem on Earth,” Julian Gutt, a marine ecologist at the Alfred Wegener Institute for Polar and Marine Research, told Nature.

The lead up to the break, as captured by Sentinel-1. A.E. Hogg/CPOM.University of Leeds/BAS

If the area exposed by the breakaway iceberg – known as A68 – isn’t already a treasure trove of life, it soon will be. That’s why the BAS and others have worked hard to make sure it’s designated as a Special Area of Scientific Study.

“An international agreement is now in place to give special protection to the area of ocean left exposed when one of the largest icebergs ever recorded broke free from the Larsen C Ice Shelf in July this year,” a recent BAS press release reads.

Ultimately, as A68 continues to move northwards, “it will leave behind a 5,818 km2 [2,246 square miles] area of seabed exposed to open marine conditions.”

That, by the way, is an area so large it could fit nearly 7.5 New York Cities inside it, back-to-back. That’s a heck of a lot of life that’s emerging from the shadows.

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