Is Antarctica’s Seafloor Hospitable to Life?

An unexpectedly rich diversity of organisms was discovered on the seafloor beneath Antarctica's Ekström Ice Shelf.
An unexpectedly rich diversity of organisms was discovered on the seafloor beneath Antarctica's Ekström Ice Shelf.

You wouldn't expect to find anything living under your ice trays, so imagine how researchers felt when they found dozens of different species deep below Antarctica's Ekström Ice Shelf. It's rare enough to find life in a place where the Sun never shines, but the little patch of seafloor wasn't expected to have much in the way of food, either.

In 2018, Gerhard Kuhn and Raphael Gromig of the Alfred Wegener Institute used boiling water to bore hundreds of feet to reach the bottom of the ice shelf, which covers 600,00 square miles (1.6 million sq km). After the initial surprising discovery of fragments of organisms way below the huge block of ice, the researchers sent them to be examined. In just that small sample, 77 different species were identified – far more than was expected in such a barren place. Many of them were bryozoans (stationary filter feeders) or tube-feeding worms. "This is like a whole research cruise worth of samples, yet it came from just one drill hole," said marine biologist David Barnes, of the British Antarctic Survey.

"If you had asked me three questions at the manuscript onset," said Barnes, "How much richness of life will we find? Not much. How abundant is it going to be? Not very. What's it's growth going to be like? Very slow. And I would have been wrong on every point."

The amazing Antarctic:

  • On July 21, 1983, the coldest temperature on record, -128.56 degrees F (-89.2 C), was measured at Antarctica's Vostok station.

  • Wind speeds of 200 mph (320 km/h) have been recorded in Antarctica.

  • Antarctica contains 70 percent of the surface freshwater on Earth and 90 percent of its freshwater ice.

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Discussion Comments

dimchild

No wonder astronomers want to drill a hole in Jupiter's icy planet, Europa, in search of life. Who knows, they my find some form of life?

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    • An unexpectedly rich diversity of organisms was discovered on the seafloor beneath Antarctica's Ekström Ice Shelf.
      By: NASA ICE
      An unexpectedly rich diversity of organisms was discovered on the seafloor beneath Antarctica's Ekström Ice Shelf.