Hidden ecosystem discovered under Antarctic ice | Polarjournal
The image shows amphipods aggregating under the Antarctic ice shelf. Researchers unexpectedly stumbled upon it. (Photo: NIWA / CRAIG STEVENS)

Researchers have discovered an ecosystem never seen before. Scientists at New Zealand’s National Institute of Water and Atmospheric Research (NIWA) used a special hot water drilling system, to ‘melt’ a hole in the Larsen Ice Shelf before hitting an underground river in about 500 meters. The team then lowered a camera into the river below. To the team’s amazement, hundreds of amphipods, small shrimp-like crustaceans, swarmed around the camera. The Larsen Ice Shelf is a huge sheet of ice that juts into the Weddell Sea on the east coast of the Antarctic Peninsula.

The picture shows the hole in the Larsen Ice Shelf. When a camera was lowered into the hole, scientists discovered a thriving ecosystem. (Photo: NIWA / CRAIG STEVENS)

Craig Stevens, a physical oceanographer at NIWA who participated in the expedition, said in a news release that it was a “big surprise.”

“For a while, we thought something was wrong with the camera. But as the focus improved, we noticed a large swarm of arthropods about 5 mm in size,” he said. “We were jumping up and down over all these animals that were swimming around our equipment. This means that there is clearly an important ecosystem down there. We brought some water samples back to the lab to study the DNA and other properties of the water. That makes it unique in that we observed something not seen in other systems nearby.”

Craig Stevens: “If all these animals that were swimming around our camera means that there’s clearly an important ecosystem process going on there.”

Researchers have known for some time about a network of hidden freshwater lakes and rivers flowing beneath the Antarctic ice sheets, but these have yet to be directly surveyed.

Project leader Huw Horgan, professor of geophysical glaciology at the Antarctic Research Center of Victoria University of Wellington, was the first to discover the ecosystem during the expedition. Studying satellite images of the ice shelf, he noticed a groove in the ice, an indication that there was a river mouth beneath the ice. Horgan said, “What we found was a cathedral-like cavern teeming with life.”

The researchers used the hot water drilling system to reach the underground river course. The team has left the instruments at the site to collect more data in the coming months and years. (Photo: NIWA / CRAIG STEVENS)

Heiner Kubny, PolarJournal

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