Back in July 2017, long after a crack began propagating through a slither of Antarctica, a massive iceberg calved from the Larsen C Ice Shelf. Drifting out into the Southern Ocean, it not only provided researchers with a close-up view of this dramatic process, but a chance to see what lay below: an ecosystem that’s been shielded from sunlight and the surface for around 120,000 years.
A few months after the calving event took place, the British Antarctic Survey (BAS), along with several other research groups, threw its hat into the ring, hoping to head to the newly uncapped area and survey it. The BAS have just announced that, this month, they’re off, sailing to the unknown on the RRS James Clark Ross, along with representatives from several other research institutes.
The expedition will set off from the Falkland Islands on February 21, and it’ll spend three weeks probing beneath the waves.
This isn’t just a little nook or cranny that’s been revealed, by the way. According to a press release by the BAS, it’s 5,818 square kilometers (about 2,250 square miles) in size, which is about 7.4 times that of New York City. A plethora of new species is likely to be discovered during this particular venture, but, rather significantly, this expedition is also a race against time.
Although changes to the ecosystem would have always been happening as it remained under the cover of darkness, the rapid removal of its icy ceiling means that it’s now experiencing light levels that have been far lower for hundreds of millennia. The environment it once was has now been fundamentally altered at a remarkable pace, and as the iceberg continues to drift away, those light levels will only rise further.
Part of the rush to see the new ecosystem, then, isn’t just to discover the species that call it home but to study how everything changes and adapts to the new environmental regime. Will any species die out, and what invaders will begin to colonize the seafloor anew?
BAS marine biologist Dr Katrin Linse, the leader of this new expedition, explained that they’ve “put together a team with a wide range of scientific skills so that we can collect as much information as possible in a short time. It’s very exciting.”
This expedition is actually making history. There have been plenty of similar journeys to Antarctica in the past, but this is the first to head into an area protected under a brand-new international agreement. Conceived in 2016 by the Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources, it gives newly exposed areas like this in Antarctica a special scientific conservation status.