Antarctic scientists stumble across new life thriving below nearly one kilometre of ice shelf

Olivia Rudgard
·3-min read

Watch: Scientists accidentally find life beneath ice shelves in the Antarctic

New creatures found by the British Antarctic Survey deep below an ice shelf suggest that life may be able to survive under conditions previously thought impossible.

In an accidental discovery scientists drilled through 900m of ice to reach the sea below the huge Filchner-Ronne Ice Shelf and found a populated boulder hundreds of miles from the open ocean.

Lead author Dr Huw Griffiths, of the British Antarctic Survey, said the group was likely to include species previously unknown to science.

"There is a good chance that they could well be something we have never encountered before.

"This brief glimpse, a few seconds of video, showed us something we didn't expect to see, so the next challenge is to work out how we can properly sample and investigate this 'new' community given the extreme logistical and technological challenges involved."

Life under an ice shelf is thought to be less abundant than in the open ocean because of the lack of access to sunlight.

British Antarctic Survey camera travelling down the 900-meter-long bore hole in the Filchner-Ronne Ice Shelf. - Dr Huw Griffiths/British Antarctic Survey
British Antarctic Survey camera travelling down the 900-meter-long bore hole in the Filchner-Ronne Ice Shelf. - Dr Huw Griffiths/British Antarctic Survey

Previously species observed beneath ice shelves had all been mobile creatures such as fish, worms, jellyfish or krill, but the study found immobile species that must rely on dead or living plankton swept through on sea currents in order to survive.

Because of the currents under this ice shelf, scientists calculated that the food these creatures are living on may be coming from as far as 1,500km away.

Professor Mike Bentley, of Durham University's geography department, who was not involved in the research, said the finding suggested there could be far more life beneath ice shelves than was previously believed.

"If you added up all the observations we've got from underneath the shells, we've drilled about 10 boreholes through them and put videos through, of which this is one.

"Through all those boreholes we've observed about the size of a tennis court underneath the ice shelves. Take just one of the ice shelves in Antarctica and it's about the size of France.

"So we're observing a tiny bit of the sea floor and there's probably more surprises to come."

Ice shelves are under threat from warmer seas and air temperatures, with recent collapses in the Arctic and Antarctic thought to be related to climate change.

Estimates over how much of the Antarctic's ice shelves could be lost vary based on levels of greenhouse gas emissions over the next few decades.

Under higher-emissions scenarios, melting Antarctic ice could push sea levels up by up to three metres by the year 2300, one 2015 study found.

"If these species are new and only found under ice shelves then they would be very vulnerable to ice shelf collapse or any changes to ocean circulation caused by climate change," Dr Griffiths added.

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