compassion, collaboration & cooperation iN transistion
BIVOUACKED IN THE middle of the Filchner-Ronne Ice Shelf—a five-hour flight from the nearest Antarctic station—nothing comes easy. Even though it was the southern summer, geologist James Smith of the British Antarctic Survey endured nearly three months of freezing temperatures, sleeping in a tent, and eating dehydrated food. The science itself was a hassle: To study the history of the floating shelf, he needed seafloor sediment, which was locked under a half mile of ice.
To get to it, Smith and his colleagues had to melt 20 tons of snow to create 20,000 liters of hot water, which they then pumped through a pipe lowered down a borehole. It took them 20 hours to melt through the ice inch by inch, finally piercing through the shelf.
Next, they lowered an instrument to collect the sediment, along with a GoPro camera. But the collector came back empty. They tried once more. Still empty. Again, nothing comes easy here: Each round trip of the instrument took an hour.
It’s also not clear how these stationary animals got there in the first place. “Was it something very local, where they kind of hopped from local boulder to local boulder?” asks Griffiths. Alternatively, perhaps their parents lived on a rock hundreds of miles away—where the ice shelf ends and more typical marine ecosystems begin—and released their sperm and eggs to travel in the currents.
Because Griffiths and his colleagues don’t have specimens, they also can’t say how old these animals are. Antarctic sponges have been known to live for thousands of years, so it’s possible that this is a truly ancient ecosystem. Perhaps the rock was seeded with life long ago, but currents have also refreshed it with additional life over the millennia.
The researchers also can’t say whether this rock is an aberration, or if such ecosystems are actually common under the ice. Maybe the geologists didn’t just get extremely lucky when they dropped their camera onto the rock—maybe these animal communities are a regular feature of the seafloor beneath Antarctica’s ice shelves. There’d certainly be a lot of room for such ecosystems: These floating ice shelves stretch for 560,000 square miles. Yet, through previous boreholes, scientists have only explored an area underneath them equal to the size of a tennis court. So it may well be that they’re out there in numbers, and we just haven’t found them yet.
And we may be running out of time to do so. This rock may be locked away under a half mile of ice, but that ice is increasingly imperiled on a warming planet. “There is a potential that some of these big ice shelves in the future could collapse,” says Griffiths, “and we could lose a unique ecosystem.”
... bearing in mind that the total size of the UK and Eire combined is 121,684 square miles, which constitutes not even a quarter of the floating ice shelves detailed above.
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