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Photo: British Antarctic Survey

The enormous 5,800-square-kilometer Antarctic ice shelf broke away last July, calving away from the Antarctic Peninsula.

Now, a team of European scientists are making final preparations to hurry into the area hidden beneath 1 trillion tons of ice for more than 100,000 years.

The team from nine institutions leaves Stanley, the capital of the Falkland Islands, on Feb. 21, heading south on the RRS James Clark Ross. The trip is expected to last three weeks, as they use satellite monitoring to dodge the massive chunks of ice that have been left in the wake of the ice calving months ago.

The goal, the scientists say, is to collect and investigate the ecosystem that had been secreted away for so long until now.

“We need to be bold on this one,” said David Vaughan, science director of the British Antarctic Survey. “Larsen C is a long way south and there’s lots of sea ice in the area, but this is important science, so we will try our best to get the team where they need to be.”

“It’s important we get there quickly before the undersea environment changes as sunlight enters the water and new species begin to colonize,” added Katrin Linse, a marine biologist, also from the Survey. “We’ve put together a team with a wide range of scientific skills so that we can collect as much information as possible in a short time.”

The scientists expect to collect seafloor animals, microbes, and plankton, as well as sediment and water samples. Much of the collection will be made using a special tool pulled along the ocean bottom.

Linse said the calving of the ice sheet is a “unique opportunity” to study marine life. Vaughan called the ice calving an “unprecedented” chance to establish interdisciplinary science in the Antarctic, especially in the wake of the 2016 special agreement made by the Commission for Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources.

 “Now is the time,” added Vaughan, “to address fundamental questions about the sustainability of polar continental shelves under climate change.”

The team will not be the first to investigate the aftermath of the massive breakaway of the Larsen C Ice Shelf. Scientists from the University of Leeds analyzed the changes on the remaining part of the ice shelf, to assess structural changes and to evaluate its stability.

Athena Dinar, a senior ccommunications manager for the British Antarctic Survey, told Laboratory Equipment that 20 scintists and 23 crew members will be aboard the ship. Additional supplies will be packed on the boat in case they get stuck in the ice, she said. The Survey will also have another reseach ship operating nearby, and other Antarctic operators will be in the region in case of emergency, Dinar added.

Larsen C was already floating in the ocean before it broke off so it has no immediate impact on sea level, according to scientists with the United Kingdom-based Project MIDAS. Observers had been awaiting its break for more than six months.

“The iceberg is one of the largest recorded and its future progress is difficult to predict,” said Adrian Luckman, lead MIDAS investigator, at the time of the July rupture.

Larsen C’s fate could follow two previous ice shelves on the peninsula. Larsen A collapsed in 1995 and Larsen B suddenly broke off and disintegrated in 2002.

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