Scientists discovered a “hidden world” under the ice of Antarctica

Researchers drilled more than 500 meters until they found a secret place inhabited by unexpected species.

16 de July de 2023 14:21

Ice drilling in the area of Antarctica where they found the marine ecosystem 500 meters deep: Photo: NIWA / Craig Stevens

Beneath the ice of Antarctica, a team of scientists found a gigantic cathedral-shaped cavern that they called a "hidden world" because it hides an entire ecosystem of unexpected sea creatures.

The discovery occurred when an expedition of New Zealand researchers drilled more than 500 meters of the Ross Ice Shelf (located on the coast of West Antarctica), in a place where there was evidence of an underground river.

Indeed, they found the river, but it flowed inside a cave and was inhabited by amphipods, small creatures from the same family as lobsters, crabs and mites.

“Being able to observe and sample this river was like being the first to enter a hidden world,” Huw Horgan, a glaciologist at Victoria University of Wellington and leader of the Antarctica New Zealand Institute , told The Guardian shortly after announcing by first time its discovery in June 2022.

Likewise, the comparison of this underwater cavern with a cathedral is due to the fact that the ice roof is rugged and has pronounced undulations.

They didn't expect to find life

According to a statement , Horgan detected the underground river after analyzing several satellite images of Antarctica in 2020, so he proposed drilling hundreds of meters of ice and placing cameras in the underwater channel with the aim of finding out how climate change impacts these areas. However, they did not expect to find living beings.

"We have done experiments in other parts of the ice shelf and thought we had things under control, but this time there were big surprises," said Professor Craig Stevens , a physical oceanographer at the National Institute for Water and Atmospheric Research (NIWA). .

  Lower part of the ceiling of the underground cavern, compared to a cathedral. Photo: NIWA / Craig Stevens   

"For a while, we thought something was wrong with the camera , but when the focus improved we noticed a swarm of arthropods about 5 millimeters in size," he added.“We were jumping for joy because having all those animals swimming around our equipment clearly meant that there is an important ecosystem there.”

Although they point out that these animals had already been documented by previous studies, it is interesting to know “where their food comes from and why their presence was so variable during the 10 days” of observation, indicated the oceanographer.

Experts will continue studying this new ecosystem, since they want to understand how nutrients persist at that temperature and depth of the sea. However, they were also concerned about the possibility that these hidden environments are at risk due to climate change. .

Finally, scientists can take advantage of this expedition to investigate how an ecosystem isolated from the rest of the world evolves, such as Movile Cave, which was sealed for more than five million years.

How was this underwater cave formed?

The underwater cavern , nicknamed Kamb, after the ice current that runs through its parts, is truly enormous according to terrestrial observations and data from radars and satellites. It is about 10 kilometers long and is high enough to house the Empire State Building in New York.

According to a 2022 study by Horgan and his colleagues, the ice chamber began to form almost four decades ago. It began as a small point at the mouth of the Kamb River towards the sea and grew longer along the path of the current.

Illustration of the underwater cave under Antarctica in question. Photo: Journal of Geophysical Research (2022)   


Since the water in the Kamb subglacial river is above freezing, there is no way it can erode the ice into a cavern. For that reason, Horgan suggests that the current has been bringing warmer ocean water that, being Less dense than that of the river because it has less salinity, it rises upward and forms a kind of dome.

“I think of it as a waterfall in reverse."It's pulling really warm ocean water to melt the base of the glacier," adds Christine Dow , a glaciologist at the University of Waterlo in Ontario.


The Republic

By Agenda Malvinas


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