Researchers Drill Through 900 Meters of Ice, Discover Life in Total Darkness Under Antarctic Ice Shelf

February 26, 2021 Updated: March 9, 2021

In an incredible discovery, polar scientists have sighted marine life on the ocean floor beneath a huge Antarctica ice shelf, an area previously believed to be uninhabited.

Planning to collect sediment samples, scientists from the British Antarctic Survey (BAS) lowered a camera into a borehole in the Filchner-Ronne Ice Shelf on the southeastern Weddell Sea. The camera descended through 900 meters (approx. 0.5 miles) of solid ice before exiting into the depths of the Antarctic far below.

The temperature on the pitch-dark ocean floor, untouched by sunlight, registered -2.2 degrees Celsius (approx. 28 degrees Fahrenheit).

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The 900-meter-deep Filchner-Ronne Ice Shelf bore hole on the southeastern Weddell Sea (Courtesy of British Antarctic Survey)

As the camera bounced off a boulder, it captured footage of two different types of filter-feeding sea sponges affixed to a rocky formation. The sponges, 160 kilometers (approx. 99 miles) further from previous sightings by the researchers, CNN reports, are the first stationary marine life to be documented in the area.

“This discovery is one of those fortunate accidents that pushes ideas in a different direction and shows us that Antarctic marine life is incredibly special and amazingly adapted to a frozen world,” biogeographer and lead author of the survey Dr. Huw Griffiths said in a Feb. 15 press release.

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The Antarctic boulder harboring sea sponges, potentially one or many previously unknown species (Courtesy of British Antarctic Survey)

“We were expecting to retrieve a sediment core from under the ice shelf,” added BAS geologist Dr. James Smith, “so it came as a bit of a surprise when we hit the boulder and saw from the video footage that there were animals living on it.”

Mobile marine life such as worms, fish, jellyfish, and krill have been recorded beneath Antarctic ice shelves in this area, but never stationary organisms that feed by filtering the water. Notably, the BAS borehole was drilled 260 kilometers (approx. 161 miles) from the open sea and more than 300 kilometers (approx. 186 miles) from the nearest food source.

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The Filchner-Ronne Ice Shelf on the southeastern Weddell Sea (Public Domain)

Griffiths speculated that the sponges could be an “incredibly hardy version of what normally lives in Antarctica,” before venturing that they could be a new species altogether. In such barren climes, this adaptation may be able to go weeks, months, or even years without sustenance.

The BAS team’s study, titled “Breaking All the Rules,” in homage to their exciting discovery, was published in scientific journal Frontiers in Marine Science on Feb. 15.

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The total area explored beneath Antarctic ice shelves adds up to around the size of a tennis court. (Courtesy of British Antarctic Survey)

Griffiths, who has worked with BAS for 20 years, claimed that the survey team’s discovery raises more questions than it answers, such as: “What would happen to these communities if the ice shelf collapsed?”

“To answer our questions we will have to find a way of getting up close with these animals and their environment,” Griffiths says, “and that’s under 900 meters of ice, 260 kilometers away from the ships where our labs are.”

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To date, eight Antarctic boreholes have allowed polar scientists to explore an area around the size of a tennis court, albeit with difficulty owing to extreme weather conditions. There is plenty left to explore; Antarctic ice shelves currently cover an area spanning over 1.5 million square kilometers (approx. 580,000 square miles).

Adds Griffiths, scientists will have to find “new and innovative ways” to study the Antarctic ocean floor in order to answer those questions that remain.

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