When one of the largest icebergs ever recorded — measuring roughly the size of Delaware — broke free from the Larsen C ice shelf on the Antarctic Peninsula last July, it exposed an entirely unexplored region of the Southern Ocean. A team of scientists, led by the British Antarctic Survey, are racing to study what strange new creatures might be lurking in these previously undisturbed and frigid depths before the ecosystem changes forever.
"I cannot imagine a more dramatic shift in environmental conditions in any ecosystem on Earth," said Julian Gutt, a marine ecologist at the Alfred Wegener Institute for Polar and Marine Research in Bremerhaven, Germany, told Nature last fall.
As the iceberg drifts into the Weddell Sea, some 5,800 square kilometers of sea floor that have been shielded by ice for up to 120,000 years will reveal unimaginable secrets. The opportunity represents one of the only positives for an event wrought by a rapidly changing climate. The ecosystem found there is almost certainly destined to disappear as soon as it is exposed, as outside species race in to colonize the new turf.
For now, though, it's an incredible opportunity for scientists to get a glimpse at rare unexplored terrain.
A brief glimpse of new life forms
Because this isn't the first iceberg to split off in the region, scientists do have some inkling of what to expect. For instance, video footage taken by geophysicists on a U.S. Antarctic program cruise at the site of Larsen B in March of 2005 showed that the sea floor was covered in an immense white mat — likely a vast layer of sulfur-eating microbes. Giant chemotrophic clams also dotted the otherworldly landscape. But by the time a true research vessel made it to the area for intense study, only dead clam shells and decaying plant matter remained.
Scientists hope to beat the inevitable collapse of this fragile ecosystem this time. They will also be able to study how these ecosystems transition and adapt to such monumental, rapid environmental changes.
"It’s important we get there quickly before the undersea environment changes as sunlight enters the water and new species begin to colonize," marine biologist and expedition team leader Dr. Katrin Linse said in a statement. "We’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."
Luckily — thanks to a 2016 agreement by the multinational Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources to automatically designate any areas of ocean exposed by the collapse or retreat of ice shelves as a Special Area for Scientific Study — commercial fishing is prohibited in the Larsen C region for at least two years. That should help ensure that the study area remains pristine.
Once on site, the team will spend three weeks studying the ocean floor using a variety of remote video cameras and by dragging an underwater sledge to collect living specimens.
"We need to be bold on this one," Professor David Vaughan, science director at BAS, said. "Larsen C is a long way south and there’s lots of sea ice in the area, but this is important science, so we will try our best to get the team where they need to be."
You can see a video with the first views of the massive berg that is Larsen C, as well as some of the species the team expect they might encounter, in the video below.
Editor's note: This story was originally published in October 2017 and has been updated with more recent information.