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A detached piece of the Brunt ice shelf has exposed life on the seabed

After years of cracking and disintegrating, last month a huge iceberg finally broke away from the Brunt Ice Shelf in Antarctica and began drifting out to sea. The event gave researchers a glimpse of a previously inaccessible seabed teeming with life. For five decades, the ocean hidden beneath this massive block of ice has remained
Published: March 23, 2021 - 09:00
Updated: July 22, 2023 - 22:12
A detached piece of the Brunt ice shelf has exposed life on the seabed

After years of cracking and disintegrating, last month a huge iceberg finally broke away from the Brunt Ice Shelf in Antarctica and began drifting out to sea. The event gave researchers a glimpse of a previously inaccessible seabed teeming with life.

For five decades, the ocean hidden beneath this massive block of ice has remained hidden in shadow. Now, after a section of the Brunt Ice Shelf has broken away, the first rays of sunlight are finally reaching the seabed after many years. A unique spectacle, you might say, and the crew of the German research vessel that happened to be nearby had front-row seats.

organism living under the Antarctic ice
Fragile arms used to grasp food Photo – Alfred Wegener Institute

For several weeks the icebreaker Polarstern waited until the gales and dangerous waves subsided. Only then was it able to circumnavigate the huge iceberg (the detached fragment was compared in size to twice the size of the city of Chicago). Last week the ship and its crew finally got their chance.

Scientists exploring Antarctic seabed located at depths of over 800m have reported incredible levels of biodiversity. And all on the until recently inaccessible Antarctic seabed, which was suddenly exposed to sunlight.

organisms living on the seabed
Sponges and corals living on the seabed Photo: – Alfred Wegener Institute

A gigantic iceberg measuring 500 square miles separated from the Brunt Ice Shelf on 26 February. Experts from the Alfred Wegener Centre for Polar and Marine Research (AWI) and researchers aboard the German icebreaker Polarstern, reported a unique opportunity to peer into this underwater environment. This remarkable ecosystem normally exists in total darkness, hidden under hundreds of metres of ice.

Breakthrough

When the storm subsided and conditions improved, the ship was able to enter the area between the iceberg, marked A74, and the Brunt Ice Shelf. The team was studying the effects of climate change in Antarctica. Usually, this comes down to drilling holes in the ice cap to collect sediment and water samples. However, this time was different.

The Polarstern ship cutting through the ice
The icebreaker Polarstern crosses the gap between the iceberg and the Brunt Ice Shelf Photo: – Alfred Wegener Institute

It is rare to be around when the region becomes ice-free and comes into contact with sunlight. In Antarctica, icebergs of this size break off about once every 10 years. – explain the researchers from the Alfred Wegener Centre

Using an ocean floor observation and bathymetry system, the team was able to film the seabed to a depth of around 800m. This was done using cameras on a platform towed under the ship on an extended cable.

Anemone on the sea bed Photo: Alfred Wegener Institute
Anemone almost 30 centimetres in diameter Photo: Alfred Wegener Institute

Scientists were surprised to see numerous anemones, sponges and soft corals. They had settled on rocks of various sizes that glaciers had carried out to sea before they would have fallen to the muddy sea bed. Now they want to find out if they are feeding. It is not usually the case that their typical phytoplankton food can be found in such a dark environment.

At least five species of fish and two species of squid were also recorded, along with teatrops, starfish and a range of other molluscs.

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About author

Tomasz Andrukajtis
Editor-in-chief of the DIVERS24 portal and magazine. Responsible for obtaining, translating and developing content. He also supervises all publications. Achived his first diving certification – P1 CMAS, in 2000. Has a degree in journalism and social communication. In the diving industry since 2008.
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