Antarctica is a land of extremes and one of the last frontiers to explore, with many mysteries buried under its sick layers of primordial ice and snow. From the moment the first explorer set foot on its shore two hundred years ago and until now, Antarctica never fails to capture our imagination. Scientific research in Antarctica constantly uncovers new and fascinating details about this remote continent. We now know about eerily looking blood falls of iron-rich water erupting from under the ice, underground lakes that never see the light of day, and fossils of animals that lived there in the past.
There is always more to learn and see about Antarctica. New strange species were discovered deep under ice shelves. A remarkable discovery of a meteorite exploding over Antarctica in the past was recently published. And a study explaining the formation of a giant hole in its ice shed light on a decades-long puzzle.
Sea Life Beneath Antarctica’s Ice Shelves
Naturally, we would not think about Antarctica as the most hospitable place for life. Harsh conditions with the temperature dropping to -89℃, snowy winds, raging storms, and polar nights all these forces of nature may be too much for most living things to survive.
Surprisingly though, the Antarctic is full of life! Marine birds and mammals call this remote continent their home and bring up their young on its ice shores. Oceanic currents that surround Antarctica are rich with fish and plankton, which lure in whales and orcas. The only place where life was not expected to be found was deeply under the floating ice.
However, a recent expedition of marine biologists and geologists made a fascinating discovery of organisms living in bone-chilling waters beneath Antarctica’s ice. While taking sediment samples the team of scientists led by Huw Griffiths, a marine biologist of the British Antarctic survey, stumbled upon boulders with sponges attached to their surface.
The geologists drilled a hole in 3000-foot-thick ice more than 150 miles away from the open ocean and used remotely operated cameras to explore the seafloor. Expecting nothing but sediment devoid of life, they observed numerous life forms clinging to roc. Scientists were fascinated to see several spine species living on the ocean floor more than 150 miles away from ice-free waters. Some discovered organisms were new to science, “no one has ever seen these [organisms] before”, said Griffiths.
The presence of stationary organisms this far from nearest known food sources poses new questions to the researchers. With no means to more, sponges and barnacles have to rely on oceanic currents to bring small organic matter bits to them. Whether these organisms were drifted in the Antarctic ocean’s remote region as microscopic larvae or evolved to live in such challenging conditions remains an Antarctic mystery.
What is clear, complex life can persevere in an environment previously thought to be too extreme for that. Scientists are looking forward to future expeditions that will take more samples of deep-sea creatures to understand their fascinating biology better.
430 000 Years Ago a Meteor Exploded Over Antarctica
Approximately 430 000 ago, during the Pleistocene epoch, a frozen rock the length of a soccer field traveled at immense speed through our solar system. As the meteor flew towards the Sun, its orbit crossed with that of Earth leading to an imminent collision.
When the asteroid entered Earth’s atmosphere, it heated, turning into a burning boulder racing through the skies at a speed several times greater than the speed of sound. Its fiery trail blazed the sky as the asteroid hurtled toward the pristine ices of Antarctica. Just before reaching the surface, the giant space rock exploded in mid-air due to heating gasses within. The shock wave of the explosion ripped through chilled arctic air as molten cosmic debris scattered across the vast expanse of snowy wilderness.
Such mid-air asteroid explosions leave no signature impact craters on the surface despite their destructive nature. To find traces of such meteorite impacts is rare requires a thorough analysis of sediments that may contain time residual particles known as condensed spherules.
That is precisely what an international team of scientists led by Dr Van Ginneken did recently.
After collecting many samples in Str Rondane Mountains’ vicinity in Antarctica’s east, they identified tell-tale evidence of a large-scale meteorite touch-down. The chemical composition of collected spherules indicated their extraterrestrial origin due to the high concentration of nickel and chondritic bulk major.
The shape of these particles was unusually spherical, not reminiscent of a teardrop as the majority of known spherules are. Such a shape is created when particles form in the cloud of vaporized meteorite matter following the explosion. Based on the area where spherules were found, the magnitude of ancient Antarctic meteorite impact was much greater than those of Tunguska and Chelyabinsk low-altitude explosions.
According to the research, such rare findings give us an invaluable glimpse into Earth’s past regarding asteroid impacts. Knowing what to look for in future expeditions, Dr. Van Ginneken recommends expanding the search area for extraterrestrial particles because, as he said, “Antarctic ice sheet only covers 9% of Earth land surface”.
Once again, the Antarctic proved to be one of the locations that preserve our planet’s geological records.
Giant Hole in Antarctica
Antarctica’s mysteries do not end with asteroids and extreme life forms, even the ice itself, or to be more precise ― its absence where it should be mystified scientists until now.
Antarctic ice shelves cover the whole of its coastline. These smilingly endless icy planes have been known to melt during a short summer month. Melting of ice and occasional breaking off of icebergs is well known to science. However, what is unusual is that sometimes large ice areas melt away, leaving giant holes in the Antarctic shelf.
One such hole in Antarctica recently reappeared in Weddell sea ice shelves, far from the ice cape’s rim. Initially observed in the early 1970th, this hole eventually frizzed over and was considered a one-time wonder. The hole formed in 2016 and rapidly expanded to cover the area comparable to the state of Mane by 2017. Known as a polynya from Russian “hole in the ice”, such holes are more likely to be small in size and form close to open waters. The persisting nature of this giant Antarctic hole, which was ice-free for two polar winters straight, puzzled the scientists around the world.
Recently, a new study led by researchers from the University of Washington shed light on this Antarctic enigma. Stephen Riser, a professor of oceanography and co-author of the study noted that there is “a number of factors that all have to line up” for the phenomenon to happen. The study looked through decades of satellite data, climate records and even employed the help of elephant seals equipped with satellite tags to uncover the forces at work.
Strong winds that surround Antarctica can promote intense mixing of waters in the Weddell Sea. Maud Rise, a large underwater mountain located in the region, forces water currents to form vortices above it. As a result, warmer water rises from the depth; as it chills, the water sinks, with new warm water streams replacing it. Under these conditions, ice can no longer form on the surface. The formation of a giant hole is rare since all these conditions must coincide.
The ongoing study of polynya formation will help understand how climate change may affect Antarctica’s deep waters. These waters are essential for global oceanic currents and marine life.
New Discoveries Await!
Antarctica is a treasure trove of discoveries waiting to be made. We are just beginning to uncover its many mysteries. The exploration of polar oceans gives us new insights into our planet’s biodiversity and how we may protect it. The team behind Ragnar shares the goal of discovery and preservation.
A recently nominated for the Yacht of the Year by Ocean Awards, Ragnar fully commits to a sustainable exploration of the world’s oceans. Capable of sailing in harsh polar waters, Ragnar automatically collects atmospheric and oceanographic data and shares it with the global scientific community. With Ragnar’s unique exploration systems and technologies, every journey it takes contributes invaluably to our understanding of climate change and marine life.