An expansive ecosystem of knee-high mud volcanoes, snowy microbial mats and flourishing clam communities lies beneath the collapsed Larsen Ice Shelf in Antarctica, say researchers.
The discovery made in February in a deep glacial trough in the northwestern Weddell Sea was detailed this week in Eos, the weekly newspaper of the American Geophysical Union.
Such sunless, cold-vent ecosystems have been found elsewhere — near Monterey, California, in the Gulf of Mexico and in the Sea of Japan — but never in Antarctica, the report said.
“Seeing those organisms on the ocean bottom, it’s like lifting the carpet off the floor and finding a layer that you never knew was there,” said Eugene Domack, the report’s lead author and a professor of geosciences at Hamilton College, an upstate New York school located 30 miles east of Syracuse.
Domack hopes scientists find new species as they study the site and that the discovery will open the door to future Antarctic expeditions, including more exploration of Lake Vostok, a freshwater lake that sits locked in the ice two miles below the surface.
The discovery will certainly help scientists better understand the dynamics of life in such an inhospitable setting 2,800 feet below the sea surface, he said. The ice shelves cover nearly 580,000 square miles of sea floor — an area equivalent in size to the Sahara Desert or the Amazon River basin.
“We’re not marine biologists or ecosystem experts. We will leave it to them to jump on this and go forward,” Domack said.
The discovery interested Jim McClintock, a University of Alabama-Birmingham professor who has made a dozen trips to Antarctica over the past 15 years to study the chemical ecology of aquatic plants and marine invertebrates.
“We haven’t seen this here before. It shows there is no latitudinal component to finding these cold-water methane systems. They can happen in various seas around the world,” McClintock said. “It will be exciting to learn what other organisms might be down there.”