The Antarctic continent is mostly composed of enormous glaciers and among these giant blocks of ice are large floating ‘shelves’ that hold back the glaciers from gliding down into the ocean. The problem is, these ice shelves are thinning and the glaciers flowing into the sea will inevitably raise the level of water in the oceans. Scientists have been trying to comprehend how fast these ice chunks are melting and what it would mean to coastal regions.
A new study published in the journal, Science, revealed that these ice shelves are melting faster and faster — in the past 10 years alone, they have melted at a rate of 70%. According to researchers, it’s just like a time bomb that is ticking and the countdown is happening very fast.
In West Antarctica, the glaciers are reaching the seas already, resulting in a swelling sea level and if all of West Antarctica’s glaciers reach the ocean it will cause an increase in sea levels by 4 feet on the coasts. Most coastal regions around the world can flood.
The scientists said the thinning of the ice shelves and its particular melting is due to the increasing temperature of the ocean. Ice shelves are floating in water and when the water temperature increases from below, the ice shelves are affected. It doesn’t stop there though, it penetrates inland-based glaciers too, lubricating them in the process and making it easier for them to melt.
Based on their analysis, the ice decline in the area is being described as going from “minimal loss” to “accelerated decline” between 1994 and 2012.
“Overall, we show that not just the total ice shelf volume is decreasing, but we are also seeing an acceleration that has taken place over the last decade,” one researcher stated.
Ian Joughin, a scientist in the Polar Science Center of the University of Washington, told Mashable that the study is important for it is affirmation of other work and provides valuable data that is new.
“It agrees nicely with other work in West Antarctica and shows steady thinning over approximately the last two decades,” he said. “This is a huge, unambiguous signal.”
Deep below the ice is a cold and barren world that, by all indicators, ought to be utterly void of life. But recently, scientists studying the melting ice saw a six inch long (15 centimeter) fish swim by. Not long after that, they saw shrimp-like creatures.
In even more remote locations on the continent, regions that haven’t been exposed to sunlight for millions of years, scientists discovered a surprise right out of an alien film — the DNA of a microscopic creature that looks like a mix between a bear, a manatee and a centipede.
Life that is simultaneously simple and strange, normal and complicated, flourishes in this extreme environment. To the scientists who endure the cold and remoteness to discover life amid the ice, it is a source of wonder and surprise. For extreme life pros, it’s a testimony to the ability of development and adaptation.
“The possibilities are just beyond our prediction.”
If life can endure here, why not on Mars or among the ice-covered moons of Jupiter and Saturn, where water lurks beneath the frozen surface? Perhaps we aren’t alone.
“You do not have to be a rocket scientist to look around and see how extreme this environment is,” biochemist Jenny Blamey said, pointing to the black granite stone covered by ice all around her on Deception Island. She wore a red parka with a black hood which was blown by the wind. While she spoke, her glasses fogged up and droplets of rain gathered on them.
“This is actually like a desert, where you have extremely low temperatures,” said Blamey, research director at the BioSciences Foundation in Chile. She is there to analyze the genetic material of microorganisms, specifically microbes that can’t be seen.
Deception Island is a volcanic crater off the Antarctic Peninsula that used to be a refuge for whalers at the turn of the 20th century. It was evacuated many years ago after a couple of eruptions rocked the area, and yet, this is a “garden” when compared to the spot where Ross Powell stopped to speak.
Speaking by satellite phone at the border of the Ross Ice Shelf in January, the professor from Northern Illinois University described what he and co-workers saw when they stuck a remote controlled sub a half-mile under the ice to look at the leading subterranean edge of one of Antarctica’s melting ice sheets.
Scientists turned on the cameras and were astonished to see a fish, thin and almost transparent, darting around and at times appearing to be playing peek-a-boo with the camera. Orange-shelled creatures, called amphipods, also drifted by.
When the scientists in the makeshift control room on the ice first found the fish, they, “began crying and shouting and clapping,” Powell said.
“There is a fish!”
The scientists tried to capture a fish using a giant net connected to the camera system of the submarine, and making leftovers from the prior night’s supper out of lure. They never caught a fish, but they did nab some of the amphipods. Scherer, who loves seafood, was not tempted to nibble. “I thought they smelled kind of baity,” he said.
Powell and Scherer are now attempting to determine where the creatures came from and, even more to the point, where they get the food to live.
Scientists have also been taken by the search for life to Lake Vostok, considered the most remote place on Earth. The largely freshwater lake is buried under 2.3 miles (3.7 kilometers) of ice and hasn’t been near open air for 15 million years.
A couple of years ago, water samples were taken by scientists from the lake and examined for traces of life. “It appears that most of (the species) were alive recently and not fossils from a number of years back,” Rogers said.
About 94 percent were bacterial, essentially simple microbial life, but there were also fungi and even a handful of genetic traces of microscopic animals. There were even signs that elsewhere in the chilly lake there might be little fish.
Astronomers who search for possible forms of life on other planets are excited by these kinds of findings. Just this month, astronomers discovered that Jupiter’s giant moon, Ganymede, had water under the ice. Therefore, so does Europa, another moon of Jupiter, and Enceladus, a moon of Saturn.
When unexpected creatures are found under ice, “you begin to wonder if that couldn’t occur on an icy moon or exoplanet,” said Lisa Kaltenegger, an astronomer and director of the Institute for Pale Blue Dots at Cornell University.
Science does not have those solutions that are cosmic yet, but hints may be held by the cryptic fish in the darkness of Antarctica.
“The American Register.” The American Register. N.p., n.d. Web. 27 Mar. 2015. http://www.theamericanregister.com/west-antarctic-ice-melted-by-70-in-the-last-ten-years/8775/
“Critters Found in Antarctic Ice Shows How Tenacious Life Is.” Seattlepi.com. N.p., n.d. Web. 27 Mar. 2015. http://www.seattlepi.com/news/science/article/Critters-found-in-Antarctic-ice-shows-how-6162280.php#page-2