In July 2017, an iceberg with a volume of water twice that of Lake Erie and encompassing some 2,300 square miles broke free of the Larsen C ice shelf in Antarctica. As it drifted away, the giant 620-foot thick berg uncovered a stretch of ocean last exposed to sunlight as long as 120,000 years ago. Researchers from the British Antarctic Survey (BAS) immediately put plans in motion to visit the region and delve its previously hidden depths for new species.
“We have a unique opportunity to study how marine life responds to a dramatic environmental change," marine biologist Dr. Katrin Linse of the British Antarctic Survey said. "It’s exciting to think about what we might find. Using a range of different techniques, our multi-disciplinary approach by an international team will examine the marine ecosystem spanning the water column from the surface of the ocean all the way to the seabed and the sediment.”
But their plans quickly came to a halt after they encountered thick ice. Fast forward to 2019, as another team of researchers are attempting the same journey. The Alfred Wegener Institute in Germany will set sail from Chile on Feb. 9 for a nine-week journey to towards the ice shelf. The weather and ice conditions will determine their success.
"I’m really excited they are trying again this year and hopefully succeed because a lot of the ice that stopped us last year has been pushed out by thick storms this season," Linse told Earther.
In February 2018, efforts to reach the newly exposed region in the shadow of the Larsen C Ice Shelf were thwarted by, of all things, sea ice. The ship's captain made the decision to scrap the original expedition goal after encountering ice between 12- to 15-feet thick.
"We knew that getting through the sea ice to reach Larsen C would be difficult," Linse said. "Naturally, we are disappointed not to get there but safety must come first. The captain and crew have been fantastic and pulled out all the stops to get us to the ice shelf, but our progress became too slow, with just 8 kms travelled in 24 hours and we still had over 400 kms to travel. Mother Nature has not been kind to us on our mission!"
Fortunately, the team had a backup plan. The expedition turned further north to explore the waters of Prince Gustav Channel Ice Shelf and the Larsen A Ice Shelf, which both collapsed in 1995. Using video cameras and a special sledge to capture tiny animals, researchers explored deep ocean waters for new species at depths up to 3,000 feet.
So what kind of life is found in waters where temperatures regularly dip well below freezing and sunlight barely penetrates past 600 feet? Surprisingly, there's a lot of it –– and it's completely beautiful and wonderfully strange.
"Few people realize just how rich in biodiversity the Southern Ocean is – even a single trawl can reveal a fascinating array of weird and wonderful creatures as would be seen on a coral reef. These animals are potentially very good indicators of environmental change as many occur in the shallows, which are changing fast, but also in deeper water which will warm much less quickly," research cruise leader Dr. David Barnes of the BAS told Popular Mechanics.
Since embarking on a census of marine biodiversity in the Southern Ocean in 2005, researchers from BAS have identified more than 6,000 species living on the sea floor, more than half unique to the frozen region.
These incredible and alien-like species, which have spent millions of years adapting to the Antarctic's freezing temperatures, are particularly vulnerable to minor changes in their environment.
"The polar regions are amongst the fastest warming places on Earth and predictions suggest that in the future we’ll see warming sea surface temperatures, rising ocean acidification and decreasing winter sea ice – all of which have a direct effect on marine life," marine biologist Huw Griffiths explained in a 2010 press release.
Despite not being able to reach the previously unexplored region near the Larsen C Ice Shelf, the researchers are already busy planning for future opportunities. Fortunately, time is on their side, as the area is the first to benefit from a new international agreement made in 2016 that protects newly exposed Arctic marine areas from destructive fishing practices for up to a decade.
"Exploiting this new opportunity, in the absence of fishing, creates an exciting challenge for the international scientific community in this period of unprecedented climate change," shared Dr Phil Trathan, head of conservation biology at BAS.
For another view of the enchanting species living within Antarctica's depths, have a look at the stunning video below captured for the BBC's "Blue Planet II." Scientist and deep-sea explorer Jon Copley takes a submersible down 3,000 feet and pulls back the curtain on a seafloor absolutely teeming with life.
Editor's note: This article has been updated since it was originally published in March 2018.