South Pole Discovery

It has been thought that almost nothing can survive in the watery depths near the South Pole. But a group of researchers sent a robot armed with a camera a half-mile below Antarctic ice and discovered an entire ecosystem. It is the farthest south that fish have ever been found. We discuss the National Science Foundation funded project with chief scientist and Northern Illinois University professor Ross Powell and Reed Scherer, NIU professor and micropaleontologist. 

Watch the video below for more on the discovery.

Read interviews with Ross Powell and Reed Scherer.

What did you discover?

RS: Well, we discovered a lot more exciting things than we expected. We found a diverse community of organisms on a highly changeable and mobile bottom due to ice changes. Material is melting out of the ice and the community of organisms is fascinating because it is so far south and in such a narrow passageway of seawater. When we first penetrated, we weren’t even sure if it would be all ocean water. But it is definitely part of the ocean.

Are the types of fish still unknown?

RS: We have about 30 hours of video that need to be gone through but we have a variety of organisms, varieties of fish, and some species of a shrimp relative (amphipod), but also sightings of other organisms: a brittle star and possibly a thing called the sea spider. But the one thing we know is they are all mobile. Most of the Antarctic sea floor is populated by things like sponges attached to the bottom that grow slowly. But they all live on a bottom there that is constantly changing.

What is the source of food?

RP: We have three main options as to where the source of food is coming from for the community established there: one is from lake water coming out, another is the mud and debris at the bottom of the ice, and the third is the ocean itself. The ocean water has to travel about 560 miles from the open ocean, at least, inland and carry nutrients with it. I would have thought by the time that water got there, the nutrients would have been used up by other communities but maybe not.

Ross PowellHow extreme are the conditions down there?

RP: There is total darkness because they are living under a half mile of ice. It is cold, -2 degrees Celsius but in terms of fish, total darkness is not such a strange thing. In the deep ocean, as soon as sunlight stops penetrating the water, deeper water fish survive still as long as they have nutrients. They have adapted to dark conditions. Main importance is where the food source is coming from and the web structure of it.

How much of these ice shelves are still unexplored?

RS: I think it is probably about the largest stretch of continental shelf that has remained almost completely unexplored. One hole was made in the ice shelf and some observations were made on the seaward edge. So this is very new stuff.

What are the findings regarding the ice sheet melting?

RP: We have samples and that is what we will be working on for the next several months – hopefully some good scientific results come out of it. We know the ice is being melted by the ocean and raining out onto the ocean floor. We need to use our data to assess how fast ice is melting and whether it is doing anything different than two years ago, 10, or 100 years ago. Sediment will help us determine what ice has done in the past –it serves as a library of the history of the ice sheet. That’s why we collected sediment so we could understand if what we are experiencing is different from the past. Sediment core samples from the ocean floor are on the way back to us. We have to split them and take samples, and analyze the samples.

Why should those outside the scientific community care?

RP: There are two main things here. One is this discovery can help us gain the understanding of how life can survive in different environments and under what conditions. This can potentially give us clues of what we can find on other lunar bodies. NASA wants to get to Jupiter’s moon Europa with meters of ice and ocean underneath the surface. That is what is predicted and it is considered a prime area that NASA is looking to explore for extraterrestrial life. These experiments help to design and fine-tune techniques and what the potential would be should projects like this take place in the future.

And the other aspect that is relevant to the community is the factor of global warming and potential rising oceans and how fast ice will melt to raise ocean levels.

Interview has been condensed and edited.