The effects of climate change in the Antarctic have helped a team of international scientists discover a once hidden world where scores of new marine species had lived undisturbed for thousands of years.
Experts from 14 countries, including Canada, France and Germany, recently completed a 10-week voyage that began cataloguing species inhabiting the 10,000-square-kilometre seabed that was exposed after the Larsen A and B ice shelves disintegrated, 12 and five years ago, respectively.
The melting of the 5,000-year-old ice was caused by unusually high temperatures in this area, roughly the size of Jamaica, that began in the 1940s.
"Until now, scientists have glimpsed life under Antarctic's ice shelves only through drill holes," said Julian Gutt, a German marine ecologist and the expedition's chief scientist.
"We were in the unique position to sample whatever we wanted in a marine ecosystem considered one of the least disturbed by humankind anywhere on the planet," Dr. Gutt said.
The 52 scientists, who worked aboard the German research icebreaker vessel Polarstern, managed to gather or observe at least 1,000 species such as sea cucumbers, Antarctic ice fish and minke whales from waters as deep as 850 metres. Some of their finds, such as 15 amphipod (shrimp-like) species and four species of cnidarians (organisms related to sea anemones and coral and jellyfish) are presumed to be new to science.
The scientists also found in the relatively short time since the two ice shelves collapsed that the effects of human-induced global warming are still transforming the region, as species such as deep-sea sea squirts and glass sponges have already moved in and have begun to heavily colonize these inky waters.
The research is part of the Census of Antarctic Marine Life, which is part of a larger global research effort attempting to create the first marine life census of the planet by 2010.
Thirteen more CAML expeditions are planned this year during International Polar Year, which will be launched in Paris this Thursday. More than 60 countries are expected to participate in a wide range of Arctic and Antarctic research programs. This is the fourth polar year since 1882.
Ron O'Dor, a Dalhousie University professor and chief scientist for the Census of Marine Life, said the work by the Polarstern expedition has been "exciting" and critical for the massive survey.
Michael Stoddart, who is leading the CAML research, said the Polarstern's discoveries and the other planned expeditions this year will help quantify the consequences of global warming and environmental changes in this region of the world.
For example, in the Antarctic Peninsula (which is where the two Larsen ice shelves collapsed) during the past 50 years temperatures in the area have warmed up about four times faster than the average rate on the rest of the planet.
He said the marine census research will help set a needed benchmark. Prof. Stoddart, who also heads the Australian Antarctic division, said that it has taken until recently to conduct this type of research on such a large scale mainly because the Antarctic area has largely been inaccessible.
"These are not just interesting questions for scientists." he said. "These are interesting questions for humanity."