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New Ecosystem Discovered Under Antarctic Ice Sheet

Jan 22, 2015 01:31 PM EST

A new ecosystem filled with fish and invertebrates has been discovered under the Antarctic ice sheet, new research says, providing scientists new insight into how creatures can survive in such extreme environments.

Using a specially-designed hot-water drill, a team from Whillans Ice Stream Subglacial Access Research Drilling, or WISSARD, bore through a half-mile (nearly 740 meters) of ice from the edge of the Ross Ice Shelf in Antarctica's Ross Sea. They became the first ever to reach and sample the "grounding zone" - the place where the ice shelf meets the sea floor.

There, "Deep SCINI," a remotely operated vehicle deigned at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, revealed a variety of fish and invertebrates living in perpetual darkness and extreme cold, with waters at -2 degrees Celsius (28 degrees Fahrenheit).

"I have been investigating these types of environments for much of my career, and although I knew it would be difficult, I had been wanting to access this system for years because of its scientific importance," Ross Powell, a chief scientist with the WISSARD project, said in an NSF press release.

"Findings such as these - gaining an understanding of the ice sheet dynamics and its interaction with ocean and sediment, as well as establishing the structure of its ecosystem - are especially rewarding," he added.

The National Science Foundation-funded researchers will examine sediment samples from the grounding zone to learn more about how these marine creatures manage to survive in this unique, sunless ecosystem - the farthest south any fish have every been found. They also hope their findings will shed light on the mechanics of ice sheets and their potential effects on sea level rise.

"Our WISSARD data will establish for the first time sources of carbon and energy for higher trophic levels in this most southerly marine ecosystem," added John Priscu, another chief WISSARD chief scientist. "Our data will also provide important information on the connectivity between subglacial environments and ice-shelf productivity, allowing us to predict first responders to a warming climate."

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