Fish Live Under Antarctic Ice
A drilling team has recently drilled deeper below Antarctic ice than ever before, down to the “grounding zone” where the glacier meets the land and the ocean. They expected to find a barren zone of dark, cold water, but to their surprise they found fish and crustaceans.
The drilling was funded by the NSF (National Science Foundation) and took place in the Whillans Ice Stream of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet (WAIS), roughly 850 kilometers (530 miles) from the edge of the Ross Ice Shelf in Antarctica’s Ross Sea. They drilled down 740 meters (nearly 2,500 feet).
What they found was a zone of cold water about 10 meters deep that initially looked barren, finding rock on the bottom without any of the telltale signs of life. The water was very clear, indicating little bacteria or plankton.
To the researcher surprise, the camera caught images of little transparent fish swimming by. They appeared to be feeding on plankton, which must be washing in from the distant ocean where there is enough light to support the life cycle. Tidal forces likely bring water in carrying the plankton.
The researchers have captured small crustaceans but have yet to capture one of the little fish for further examination. They have spotted a variety of fish and crustaceans in these subglacial waters, and plan to do much more investigation. This is the farthest from the ocean, and the closest to the South Pole, that such subglacial life has been spotted.
The scientists will also be studying the dynamics of the ice shelf at the grounding zone, hoping to improve our understanding of what is likely to happen as temperatures rise and the ice sheets melt.