A group of international scientists expressed new concerns about rapid changes in wildlife beneath Antarctica’s Ross Ice Shelf. They said that this is due to climate change and global warming, which are making the immense glacier turn thinner each day more.

The team compared a last year investigation to a recent research and said that the changes discovered in between are extremely alarming. They noted that, due to the low temperatures of the area where the Antarctic’s largest ice shelf is located, the rapid variations are not normal because everything is supposed to “happen very slowly.”

Although the researchers said that they are not completely sure that the variations in the seafloor ecosystem are just due to the defrost of the Ross Ice Shelf – which measures roughly 487,000 square kilometers (188,000 sq mi) and about 800 kilometers (500 mi) across, or almost the size of France – they noted that those “big changes” have occurred only these “few years.”

Patrick Degerman, Finn researcher and part of the seven-people-team that led the expedition, wrote that they dove for around six weeks through the coastal area and felt “surprised” after all the findings.

Antarctica's Ross Ice Shelf, Wildlife underneath the shelf, Light passing through the shelf
Antarctica’s Ross Ice Shelf, almost France’s size, is changing the animal community. Image credit: Josh Landis/NSF

“Two days ago, [two of the researchers] did the first dive of the year under the ice in crystal clear water, and much to everyone’s surprise, the animal community on the seafloor had changed dramatically since the last visit in 2009,” wrote Degerman the first week of November on the expedition’s Facebook page Science Under the Ice.

Scientists have estimated that almost the ninety percent of all the glacier is below the water surface.

The Antarctic’s largest glacier affected by climate change

The scientists decided to spend the six weeks camping on the Ross Ice Shelf in two different places. They chose those sites to compare new data to previous studies performed just a couple of years. Thus, to have information on the alterations that have occurred over the time, especially due to “climate change” and global warming.

Throughout all the six-week expedition, the researchers regularly uploaded photos, posts and videos of their work to show people the notable and “unexpectedly rapid” changes below the ice shelf.

According to Degerman, “the aim of the expedition” was to see exactly how climate change was affecting the marine biodiversity in Antarctica. Due to the glaciers and low temperatures that maintain isolated the animals, hundreds of species have lived in the ocean throughout the years without been largely affected by “human activity.”

Antarctica's Ross Ice Shelf, Wildlife underneath the shelf, Light passing through the shelf
The number of species living under the Antarctica’s Ross Ice Shelf while the ice melts. Image credit: NSIDC

The seafloor beneath the Antarctica’s Ross Ice Shelf is known to be inhabited by just a few species. Due to the low levels of light down there, much animals don’t tend to frequent those dark areas. Phytoplankton and other biological material for instance, or “marine snow” as the scientists doubted them, are organism who prefer to stay surrounded by not-extremely-cold water.

“What used to be a very stable, sparse and food-deprived animal community on the seafloor under the thick ice in New Harbour is now much richer, with more species and higher densities of animals,” Degerman wrote. “Some species rarely observed at this site now appear to be relatively common.”

Previously, despite the fact that the space between the immense ice shelf’s limit and the ground underneath it is around 66 feet (20 meters), the wildlife was only integrated by animals commonly found in deep-ocean areas – like deep-sea sponges, sea stars, brittle stars and sea cucumbers. But the new findings showed that the number of species habiting today is higher than years before.

More light passing through the shelf

The shelf is getting thinner every day due to the increasing temperature. This has affected the glacier and made it thinner than it was to be before. Due to the less mass of frozen water, more levels of light are reaching under the ice and allowing more animals to live at – especially in summer months, where the heat is higher.

Climate change affecting glaciers, Antarctica's Ross Ice Shelf, Global warming
Glaciers are falling apart thanks to climate change and global warming. Image credit: NOAA

“New Harbour sea ice can go for years without breaking [up], and this multiyear ice can grow up to 4.5 meters [15 feet] thick. When the ice is thick, very little light can penetrate the ice to fuel primary production (for example, algae), and thus food supply to the animals on the seafloor is limited,” Degerman wrote.

The community getting richer is a “rapid response to the sea ice breaking” these past two years. Degerman explained that the productivity of an ecosystem gets higher when more light reaches any area in the ocean. According to him, the ice of the shelf is today “about 3 meters [10 feet] thick.”

This team achieved to be the first to ever perform the first virtually-documented expedition in real time. They used five 360-degree video cameras to record many videos – which will be available on next year after being processed in Finland.

Source: Science Under the Ice