Scientists to explore an underwater world near Antarctica that's been hidden for 120,000 years

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Greenpeace International released this submarine video of life along the Antarctic seafloor, which previously had never been visited by humans. Greenpeace is campaigning to protect the area with the world’s largest ocean sanctuary.
USA TODAY

Scientists are about to explore a part of the world that’s been hidden for 120,000 years.

A team of researchers, led by the British Antarctic Survey, is heading to Antarctica this week to investigate a mysterious marine ecosystem that’s been hidden underneath an Antarctic ice shelf for tens of thousands of years.

The ecosystem was suddenly uncovered when a massive iceberg sheared off from the Larsen Ice Shelf last July. The 1 trillion-ton iceberg, known as A-68, was twice of the volume of Lake Erie when it broke off.

The scientists will travel by ship to collect animal and plant samples from the newly exposed seabed, which covers an area of around 2,200 square miles. They will be in the area about three weeks.

“The calving of A-68 provides us with a unique opportunity to study marine life as it responds to a dramatic environmental change,” said expedition leader Katrin Linse from the British Antarctic Survey 

They need to get there in a hurry: “It’s important we get there quickly before the undersea environment changes as sunlight enters the water and new species begin to colonize,” she said.

More: Massive iceberg nearly the size of Delaware breaks off Antarctica

“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,” Linse added. “It’s very exciting.”

The team will investigate the area previously under the ice shelf by collecting seafloor animals, microbes, plankton, sediments and water samples. Their findings will provide a snapshot of what life under the ice shelf was like, so that changes to the ecosystem can be tracked.

When the iceberg calved off last year, it fundamentally changed the landscape of the Antarctic Peninsula.  The calving reduced the size of the ice shelf by some 12%.

The Antarctic seafloor is like a visit to an alien world: A recent visit from a Greenpeace submarine to the seafloor of the Antarctic Ocean revealed a stunning underwater world that was “carpeted with life.”

More: Undersea cruise: Humanity’s first visit to the Antarctic seafloor finds it ‘carpeted with life’

David Vaughan, science director of the survey, said “the calving of A-68 offers a new and unprecedented opportunity to establish an interdisciplinary scientific research program in this climate sensitive region. Now is the time to address fundamental questions about the sustainability of polar continental shelves under climate change.”

“We need to be bold on this one,” Vaughan said. “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.”

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