Colourful life beneath Antarctic ice

Andrew Drummond
(Australian Associated Press)


Deep beneath Antarctica’s thick sea ice in freezing waters lives a stunning marine community, captured by researchers on remote-control camera.

Colourful algae and sponges provide a bright habitat for sea spiders, worms, star fish and sea cucumbers in a scene more reminiscent of a coral reef.

“This footage reveals a habitat that is productive, colourful, dynamic and full of a wide variety of biodiversity,” Australian Antarctic Division biologist Glenn Johnstone said on Wednesday.

He has been involved in research near Australia’s Casey Station for the past year measuring the acidity, oxygen and salinity of minus-1.5C seawater beneath ice that is 1.5 metres thick.

“Occasionally an iceberg may move around and wipe out an unlucky community, but mostly the sea ice provides protection from the storms that rage above, making it a relatively stable environment in which biodiversity can flourish,” Dr Johnstone said.

But the pretty pink-encrusted algae and other visually impressive species might be at risk from another predator – ocean acidification.

“Polar waters are acidifying at twice the rate of tropical or temperate regions, so we expect these ecosystems to be among the first impacted,” researcher Johnny Stark said.

“Carbon dioxide is more soluble in cold water … Antarctica may be one of the first places we see detrimental effects of ocean acidification on these organisms.”

The impact of acidification will be the subject of ongoing laboratory research in Hobart.


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