Scientists accidentally discover life deep underneath Antarctic ice shelf

Breanna Barraclough
Source: 1News

Deep in Antarctic waters, underneath a massive floating ice shelf, baffled scientists have discovered life.

The UK research team weren't expecting to find signs of life when drilling through more than 900 metres of ice in the Weddell Sea.

While drilling through the Filchner-Ronne Ice Shelf to reach mud and sediment, they unexpectedly hit rock.

And video from the bore shows creatures living on that rock, in complete darkness and freezing waters of around -2.2C.

"Our discovery raises so many more questions than it answers," biogeographer and lead author Huw Griffiths says.

The odd creatures include sponges and some species potentially thought to be previously unknown. 

With no light and seemingly no food source, they have no idea how the organisms survive.

"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."

It's prompted a flurry of questions from the British Antarctic Survey (BAS) researchers .

"Such as how did they get there? What are they eating? How long have they been there? How common are these boulders covered in life? Are these the same species as we see outside the ice shelf or are they new species? And what would happen to these communities if the ice shelf collapsed?" Griffiths says.

"To answer our questions we will have to find a way of getting up close with these animals and their environment — and that's under 900 meters of ice, 260km away from the ships where our labs are."

Kiwi scientist Craig Stevens carried out similar drilling on the Ross Ice Shelf, the largest ice shelf in Antarctica and located near New Zealand's Scott Base research station.

He says the new research "provides much food for thought".

"This type of work is so exciting and so rich in possibilities. We know so little about these environments — there is nowhere else in the entire solar system quite like an ice shelf cavity," he told 1 NEWS.

He contributed to the report after Griffiths approached him, sharing some of the imagery from his 2017 experiment at the Ross Ice Shelf.

"My small NIWA team captured some nice video footage that was comparable in many ways to the BAS dataset," Stevens says.

"It was recorded beneath many hundreds of metres of ice and ocean, hundreds of kilometres from the open ocean.

"[This research] certainly provides motivation to get more camera gear down the boreholes."

So could there be more unknown life hidden in Antarctica's most inaccessible waters?

"Despite being a physicist, I feel pretty comfortable saying undoubtedly," Stevens says.

"If one were to look at a map of where we have been versus where we have not looked under Antarctic ice shelves, we have a way to go."

Griffiths and the research team say the next challenge will be finding a way to study the unexpected ecosystem and see if there are any more hidden beneath the ice shelves.

"This means that as polar scientists, we are going to have to find new and innovative ways to study them and answer all the new questions we have," Griffiths says.

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