It’s winter in Antarctica, and a group of scientists are studying the frozen wasteland. Then, while battling howling winds and blistering cold, they make a perplexing discovery. According to the team’s high-tech gadgets, a colossal hole has opened up in the sprawling ice sheet nearby. It’s a chasm so enormous – several hundred miles across – that it has to be viewed from space to really take it all in. And the experts are left with some serious questions to answer. Firstly, how on Earth did the gap get there? But more importantly, should we all be concerned?
Well, enormous holes appearing in Antarctic ice isn’t an everyday occurrence – especially on this scale. We’re talking about a space of more than 29,000 square miles here, which is pretty difficult to imagine in our heads. That’s broadly similar to the size of Austria. Surely an ice chasm of that scale can’t be good news?
But while the hole may well concern the experts, other species have almost certainly celebrated its presence. Sea mammals such as whales and seals are known to live in the area, you see, despite the extreme conditions. And these creatures need to come up for air from time to time, meaning this break in the ice was likely a welcome one.
For us humans, though, the void represents something of an unexpected mystery. How is it that so much ice managed to simply disappear in the midst of the long Antarctic winter? This is a time of year, after all, in which the continent barely ever sees daylight. Rapid melting because of the sun’s rays seems an unlikely cause for this breach, then.
Yes, it’s generally a rarity for Antarctic researchers to find holes like this during winter – especially ones of this size. But the year before this void was noted, another one had been found, too. So, are these things forming more frequently nowadays? And if that’s the case, what might this mean for the continent and the world more generally?
Antarctica and the wider planet are intrinsically linked, after all, even if that doesn’t always seem the case. Given the icy continent’s otherworldly landscape and location, it can be difficult to think of it in the same way as we consider the rest of the Earth. It’s a vast and barren place that seems far removed from most human life. And it can technically be described as a desert, as neither rain nor snow falls there very often.
Yet Antarctica is a vital part of our world, and its wellbeing has been a concern for the scientific community for quite some time now. About half a century ago, for instance, experts started to notice that the ozone layer above the continent was breaking down. That was a significant development, as this section of the planet’s atmosphere is responsible for protecting us from ultraviolet (UV) radiation.
This problem with the layer of ozone above Antarctica was first recognized by scientists in 1985. A so-called “ozone hole” had appeared in the skies above the continent, meaning that more UV rays were able to hit the planet’s surface. And this puncture, it was noted, could vary in size from one period to the next.
UV radiation can be really damaging to both flora and fauna, although Antarctica is generally lacking in both. Still, that doesn’t mean living things are immune to any potential damage inflicted by the ozone hole. Australia and New Zealand aren’t terribly far from the frozen continent, you see, and it’s possible that their inhabitants could be affected. So, might Antarctica’s latest huge hole pose a similarly grave threat to these populations?
Well, less is known about the colossal void in Antarctica’s ice than about the breach in the continent’s ozone layer. Scientists have spent years studying the atmospheric event, taking note of the many dangers it posed. Then, after it was found that chemicals such as chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) were largely responsible for the ozone hole, a treaty was drawn up to prohibit these substances. At its earliest stages, this agreement involved nearly 50 nations, but this number has since risen to almost 200.
Thankfully, the treaty has been successful, and the signs are good that the ozone layer will one day be restored. Having said that, the results won’t entirely be seen for a while yet. As ozone expert Pieternel Levelt explained in a 2012 NASA statement, “We still have an ozone hole at the South Pole, but we expect that it will recover by 2050 to 2070.”
This is undoubtedly good news, but Antarctica has other threats to deal with, too. There are the gargantuan breaches appearing in its ice, of course, but there’s also climate change. The effects of this process aren’t being felt equally all over the continent – simply because it’s so vast. In certain areas, though, global warming is already wreaking havoc.
For one, there are certain animal groups on the icy continent that are seeing their habitats devastated by climate change. And ecosystems are delicate things, meaning that when one species is threatened, there are inevitably consequences for another. Consider Antarctica’s melting ice. Its depletion has reduced the growth of algae, which in turn has impacted the krill that feed on the plant material.
This means the Adélie penguins that rely on krill for food have also suffered. And to make things worse, this isn’t the species’ only concern. Weather patterns have also changed in the parts of Antarctica where the flightless birds have tended to nest. Emperor penguins, too, are in a precarious position these days.
The threat to Antarctica’s native species is very real, then. But the implications of the continent’s ice melting could be even more severe globally. Antarctica plays a very important role in heat regulation across the entire planet, you see. And if its systems alter and eventually even break down, the consequences will be felt across the whole world. So, should we be worried about the vast chasm that appeared in Antarctica’s ice in 2017?
Well, according to science, we humans should be more concerned by the prospect of the entire West Antarctic Ice Sheet melting than by any other, smaller breaches. As you may expect, this vast section of the continent is made up of a huge amount of ice. And if this were to thaw, then the oceans of the Earth would see absolutely immense rises.
So, climate change is a real problem for Antarctica – and, by extension, for the rest of the world, too. But while any potential issues that could arise from global warming are certainly of concern, can we blame this process for that massive chasm in the ice? It turns out that it’s not quite as simple as that.
The hole was discovered in the Lazarev Sea back in the middle of September 2017, and it caught experts by surprise. September is a winter month in Antarctica, so by rights the ice present in the continent should be at its strongest at that time. Somehow, though, this enormous section had disappeared, leaving the specialists understandably startled.
And the gap in the ice was discovered by an elite team of scientists. Some of them worked for the Southern Ocean Carbon and Climate Observations and Modeling project (SOCCOM), while others hailed from the University of Toronto. To make their remarkable discovery, the group utilized a robotic float capable of navigating beneath thick ice. Then, after the device had detected the giant chasm, the experts analyzed satellite imagery of the area to confirm its findings.
These aerial images of the hole really clarified its sheer enormity – over 29,000 square miles in surface area. And the vast expanse of inexplicably melted ice was naturally of great interest to scientists. University of Toronto physics professor Kent Moore, for example, remarked on the hole and its many surprising facets. Speaking to National Geographic magazine in 2017, he said, “In the depths of winter, for more than a month, we’ve had this area of open water.”
And given that the winter period in Antarctica is generally a time in which ice reigns supreme, you can understand Moore’s interest in the unlikely chasm. At its greatest extent, the continent hosts roughly 7 million square miles of marine ice. To give you some perspective, that’s about twice the size of the continental United States. But as we can see from the hole discovered in the Lazarev Sea, sometimes breaches can appear in this solid, frozen layer.
Such chasms are known to the scientific community as “polynyas,” and they’ve been of great interest for decades now. After all, it seems a little strange that such a vast amount of ice can melt during Antarctica’s winter months. Conditions should be at their coldest during this time of year, but openings appear all the same.
It was found, too, that this particular Antarctic hole had appeared over an underwater ridge called the Maud Rise. The gap itself, then, became known as the Maud Rise polynya. And after its discovery, the feature started to expand at a rapid rate. Just a month later, in fact, the void had grown to more than eight times its initial size.
Then, as Antarctica entered into the summertime, the ice surrounding the Maud Rise polynya started to melt, leaving the gap to disappear as it blended with the liquid seas of the area. Still, while the hole had been a fascinating anomaly for scientists to pore over, it wasn’t totally without precedent.
Going back several decades to 1974, an even bigger chasm had been discovered in the Antarctic ice. This was the Weddell polynya, which was roughly similar in size to Oregon. The gargantuan hole had appeared in winter that year then disappeared again in summer. The cycle then repeated for a couple of years before the polyna seemingly vanished for good in 1976.
Polynyas are extremely rare features, and scientists don’t often get the opportunity to observe and study them. But in 2016 – the year before the Maud Rise polynya showed up – a NASA satellite detected one appearing once again in the Weddell Sea. And, naturally, this was a source of tremendous interest for experts hoping to understand how and why these holes exist.
As NASA sea-ice specialist Alek Petty remarked in a statement, “While smaller and shorter-lived than the 1970s Weddell polynya, it’s still an unusual and important phenomenon. It allows a significant amount of heat to escape to the winter atmosphere, where air temperatures are thought to hover around [-4 °F].”
Polynyas such as the ones that appeared in the Weddell Sea in the ’70s and in 2016 can usually be attributed to either persistent air circulation patterns above the frozen ocean or currents within it. Then, once these gaps are opened, a self-sustaining cycle develops. As warmer water rises from the sea, it releases heat into the atmosphere. The water then descends as it cools, being replaced by new warmer currents from below. This process prevents new ice from forming.
And although scientists are starting to understand the broad processes behind polynyas, questions remain. Former University of Alaska-Fairbanks geophysicist Willy Weeks succinctly summarized these areas of interest in a statement released by NASA’s Earth Observatory. There, he queried, “Why was the Weddell polynya present in the 1970s and then absent until its recent reappearance?”
Weeks continued, “Did the Weddell polynya occur before 1970, and [does this mean] we are looking at a periodic process that shows itself about every 40 years? If there were earlier occurrences, there is no record of them.” There’s still much to be answered, then, but knowing a little about the 2017 Maud Rise polynya could help.
For starters, there were several differences between the Maud Rise polynya and the Weddell one that showed up the year before. The polynya from 2016 was smaller, for instance, and it disappeared after a shorter amount of time. That was because the 2017 example was created by a more significant heat cycle.
Altogether, though, experts aren’t quite sure what the Maud Rise polynya’s significance is for Antarctica as a whole. Will it have an impact on the continent’s climate? Did it show up because of the impact of global warming? Ultimately, we just don’t know for sure. More work will be necessary before these riddles can be properly solved.
Having said that, one prominent expert has expressed their opinion that polynyas do, in fact, have an impact on the environment. This person is Diana Francis, a researcher with New York University Abu Dhabi. And it was Francis who led the investigation into the Maud Rise polynya, so she’s certainly in a strong position to offer her thoughts on its implications.
Speaking in a statement, Francis remarked, “Once opened, the polynya works like a window through the sea ice, transferring huge amounts of energy during winter between the ocean and the atmosphere. Because of their large size, mid-sea polynyas are capable of impacting the climate regionally and globally as they modify the oceanic circulation.”
Francis went on to highlight the importance of figuring out what exactly causes polynyas to emerge. Though we may understand the actions behind the phenomenon, the reason that these processes get underway is still unknown. She said, “It is important for us to identify the triggers for their occurrence to improve their representation in the models and their effects on climate.”
And although further study will be needed to confirm it, a theory behind these “triggers” has been put forward. Basically, it suggests that significant cyclones are behind the emergence of polynyas. As Francis herself explained, “[Cyclonic winds] drag the floating sea ice in opposite directions around the cyclone center, creating the opening.”
After this opening has appeared in the ice, then, both the ocean and the atmosphere keep it around. Francis continued, “Once the area is free of ice, ocean dynamics bring warmer water near the surface and prevent the formation of new ice, [sustaining] the polynya over [a] longer period of time.”
So, if cyclones are responsible for triggering the emergence of polynyas, then we can say that global warming may increase their frequency in the years to come. That’s because more cyclones can be expected in Antarctica as the climate heats up. And, more to the point, they may be stronger.
Francis explained, “It is speculated that polynya events may become more frequent… because these areas will be more exposed to more intense cyclones. Previous studies have shown that under warmer climate [conditions], polar cyclone activity will intensify, and [the] extratropical cyclones’ track will move toward Antarctica, which could decrease the sea ice extent and make polynya areas closer to the cyclone’s formation zone.”
Ultimately, more work will be necessary to understand polynyas and what they mean for the future of Antarctica. That means scientists will have to use all the methods and technologies at their disposal, with pictures from space potentially playing a vital role. And Francis seems to agree, as she’s remarked, “Satellite images are a powerful tool to help us understand such a complex system where interactions between atmosphere-ice-ocean take on full meaning.”
But there are more mysteries hidden within the sprawling ice sheets of Antarctica. Shortly after Christmas Day in 2018, for example, a group of scientists bored deep beneath the continent’s surface. Then, upon reaching a subglacial lake, they drove some specialist apparatus down the chasm to take water samples. And, remarkably, they discovered evidence of some curious ancient lifeforms lurking in the liquid.
You see, the hole that the scientists had opened up actually led down to Mercer Subglacial Lake. And, just in case, a subglacial lake is exactly as its name suggests: a lake underneath a glacier. Yet not much is known about these formations. After all, their obscured positions mean that they’ve seldom been investigated in the past.
But this particular operation on December 26, 2018, fell under the banner of the Subglacial Antarctic Lakes Scientific Access (SALSA) expedition. Some 50 staff, all of whom contribute various levels of expertise, are said to be involved with the project too. A number of the team are scientists, of course, yet others are concerned specifically with drilling.
In any case, what the group ended up finding on this occasion left them stunned. For they’d come across something unusual – and it had the potential to significantly alter the scientific understanding of Antarctica. As one of the team members, David Harwood, put it, the discovery had been “fully unexpected.” Yet it was tens of thousands of years in the making.
With a majority of its land being polar desert, Antarctica is naturally considered to be the chilliest and driest continent on Earth. The continent experiences extremely low annual temperatures, too, and is largely coated with sheets of ice averaging at around 1.2 miles in depth. Generally speaking, in fact, the coldest period of a year typically reaches beyond -76 °F.
Given its harsh conditions, then, Antarctica doesn’t have a native human population. It’s also the last continent on Earth that anyone came to know about. Russian explorers first observed Antarctica in 1820, in fact – yet it was a while before anyone actually set foot there. In 1895, to be precise, a group of people from Norway arrived aboard the ship Antarctica.
And today – more than 100 years since people first reached the continent – there’s still much to learn about Antarctica. After all, the area’s isolated position and its generally uninhabitable conditions make it a particularly difficult place in which to undertake studies. But having said that, modern technology is helping to make things a little easier.
Yet since 1961 Antarctica has been administered by various countries under what’s known as the Antarctic Treaty System. This was an agreement forged in 1959 between 12 parties, including the United States, the Soviet Union and Argentina. Since then, however, the agreement has expanded – and it now encompasses 54 signatories.
The Antarctic Treaty System ensures that certain protections are in place on the continent. And as a result, no military actions are permitted there – nor are countries allowed to exploit the area’s natural resources. But, crucially, the agreement guarantees that scientific probing of the region is allowed to take place.
So a number of scientific research bases have been established around Antarctica. These are inhabited all year round, too, with the number of people present depending on the season. During the winter, for instance, around 1,000 people might be found in Antarctica, whereas in summer it might be closer to 5,000.
Yet the continent itself stretches out across 5.4 million square miles, with a coastline of around 11,160 miles. Antarctica is therefore considered to be the fifth-biggest continent on planet Earth. For a sense of scale, we can say that it’s around 1.3 times the size of Europe.
There are a number of natural water features located across the expanses of Antarctica as well. For instance, the Onyx River is 20 miles long, which makes it the most significant river on the continent in terms of length. The most considerable lake, on the other hand, is called Vostok.
Vostok is a subglacial lake situated more than 13,000 feet beneath Vostok Station – a Russian research base. And the lake is about 160 miles in length and 30 miles in width, with an area of 4,830 square miles. This makes it the 16th most considerable lake on Earth, in terms of surface area.
Aside from Lake Vostok, though, there are just under 400 other subglacial lakes confirmed to exist throughout Antarctica. One of these, of course, is the aforementioned Mercer Lake, which is located to the continent’s western side. This is topped by ice that measures at around 3,500 feet in thickness. But there’s more.
According to the journal Nature, Mercer is actually “twice the size of Manhattan” and takes its name from the Mercer Ice Stream that lies underneath it. It was first accidentally stumbled upon by the Scripps Institution of Oceanography’s Helen Amanda Fricker in 2007. For she noticed the body of water when she was analyzing a glacier with satellite radar technology.
Fricker is also a member of the SALSA project, which concerns itself with Mercer Lake. Ultimately, then, the initiative seeks to understand the geological activity of the area in which the lake is situated. And the team involved also hopes to get a handle on any lifeforms that might potentially exist there.
For you see, the study of life within subglacial lakes is interesting – given the specific conditions that define them. Specifically, the notion of organisms thriving in an environment without light is something worthy of consideration. Many of the living things on our planet get their energy through the process of photosynthesis, after all.
Put simply, photosynthesis sees specific types of bacteria, plants and algae absorbing light from the Sun and converting it into chemical energy. This is then used to sustain the organism in undertaking its various functions. And as you may already know, the process is essential in upholding the amount of oxygen on Earth.
But there are actually microorganisms that cannot make use of light in order to survive. Lifeforms like those found in subglacial lakes are such examples. These, in fact, live by different means, such as by making use of matter that is found in rock.
So it should come as no surprise that subglacial environments in Antarctica aren’t tremendously well understood. After all, they’re not exactly easy to reach. Before the SALSA project was launched, in fact, only one other subglacial lake had ever been examined. This was Lake Whillans, which is situated underneath 2,600 feet of ice.
In setting up the SALSA project, however, the scientists hoped to increase the scope of understanding related to subglacial life. Such work could potentially lead to more insights into how lifeforms can live in such extreme conditions too. And the scientific implications of this, potentially, could prove to be significant.
So in December 2018 members of the SALSA team set out on the sheets of ice above Lake Mercer. And following four days of tinkering with their equipment, they started drilling operations on December 23. Working quicker than anticipated, the team reached the lake three days later, having cut through over 3,550 feet of ice.
And on December 27 the researchers were ready to drop scientific apparatus down the pit that they’d created. As we’ve seen, they eventually managed to snap some footage of the lake’s subterranean waters too. Remember, this lake – despite being found so far beneath the Earth’s surface – is believed to be around double Manhattan’s size.
In the immediate aftermath of the drilling operation, SALSA’s scientific lead, John Priscu, chatted to website Earther about its significance. “We don’t know what we’ll find,” he said, speaking over a satellite phone from Antartica. “We’re just learning, it’s only the second time that [an operation of this nature] has been done.”
But with the hole pierced through the ice, the scientists were then able to start their various analyses. So, as well as recording a video of the lake, the team also measured temperatures and retrieved samples of matter and water. They took samples from the depths of the lake, too, including sediment from the bottom and ice from the top. And that’s just for the appetizers.
In fact, it’s expected that the extracted samples will be pored over for the next few years. And this is a point that wasn’t lost on Matt Siegfried, one of the scientists involved in the project. “We’re knee-deep right [now] sampling the deepest standing water body humans have ever accessed beneath Antarctica,” he told Earther. “[So] it’ll take some time to process what the most exciting part [is].”
Yet despite the inevitable wait, there have nonetheless been some confirmed findings. For instance, in mid-January 2019 – less than a month after the drilling exercise – the journal Nature published an article. And within this, it was revealed that the SALSA team had come across signs of life from Lake Mercer.
Specifically, the researchers had seemingly managed to come across the remains of a variety of minuscule creatures. The Nature journal described these life forms as being “smaller than poppy seeds.” But these animals were both crustaceans and what are known as tardigrades – or, in layman’s terms, water bears.
Tardigrades are in fact considered to be micro-animals – that is, creatures that can only be seen with a microscope. They have been known about since at least 1773, when German Johann August Ephraim Goeze termed them “little water bears.” And four years later, Italian Lazzaro Spallanzani coined the term “tardigrada,” which translates as “slow steppers.”
Interestingly, when these micro-animals have developed fully, tardigrades tend to measure up at little more than 0.02 inches in length. They appear quite thick and compact, with four legs on each of their sides. At the end of these legs are claws – or what are known as sucking disks.
Importantly, though, tardigrades are noted for their immense resilience against a wide variety of severe conditions. So one can find tardigrades at great depths underwater, inside mud volcanoes or, of course, in Antartica. Suffice it to say, then, they’re found in places that would snuff out the majority of other organisms and are capable of surviving in the harshest of circumstances.
But it was nonetheless a surprise when the researchers found tardigrades – and crustaceans – in Lake Mercer. After all, until this point, it was suspected that only simpler organisms could survive in subglacial lakes. But now there is evidence to suggest a greater deal of biodiversity within this extreme environment.
And what’s more, the specific nature of the discovered organisms added to the researchers’ sense of astonishment. It was found that the tardigrades were actually similar to lifeforms that exist in wet soils. Yet the crustaceans may actually have potentially come from the ocean or from icy lakes.
One theory about where these lifeforms’ ancestry comes from is that they once lived in the waters of the nearby Transantarctic Mountains. This would have been during one of Antarctica’s warmer stretches of time – perhaps 10,000 or 120,000 years ago. And when the place got colder, these micro-animals would then have been covered by ice.
But the theories of how these creatures ended up at Lake Mercer are debatable – for now, at least. Yet some light might be shed on the matter if the SALSA researchers manage to figure out the micro-animals’ age. And this could in turn help to inform scientists on the history of Antarctica’s glaciers.
Experts aside from SALSA members have given their reaction to the initial findings too. For instance, Slawek Tulaczyk, a glacier specialist from the University of California, was involved with the 2013 study of Lake Whillans. And although he’s worked in the field for several decades, he’s never seen anything like the discovery at Lake Mercer. “This is really cool,” he told Nature. “It’s definitely surprising.”
Tulaczyk has also suggested that the ancient micro-animals ended up in Lake Mercer after being swept there by rivers. Another proposition is that they may have been drawn along by a glacier moving away from the nearby mountains. But there is still some need for caution, it seems, as the creatures could’ve got there via another route entirely.
In fact, SALSA’s Priscu said that the micro-animals might merely have emerged as a result of contamination via his team’s instruments. “I’m pretty cautious about making claims,” he told Nature. If the creatures were actually found to have come from Lake Mercer, though, it “would be a real ‘wow’ moment.”
On January 5, 2019, the SALSA team closed up the hole they had made and left the site. From that point on, their work seemingly slowed up a little, with analyses taking more time to complete. And various techniques are now being employed – methods which will hopefully shed light on the creatures’ age and DNA.
So there are still many questions that need answering about the discovery at Lake Mercer. In fact, there’s even the possibility that organisms live there today. But scientists have at least made a start in their quest for understanding, using a mere “teaspoon” sample from the depths. And just imagine if they manage to take home even more material next time around? Well, we could then be in for a real big treat.