Antarctica is a true time capsule. The continent has remained frozen, covered by thick ice sheets, which has been the case for at least 15 million years. Of course, during Earth’s long geological history, and as continents crashed, crumbled, and morphed, Antarctica did so too.
In fact, researchers have discovered that millions of years ago, the continent we see covered in ice was a tropical paradise covered by lush forest, alien-like vegetation and life was teeming on its surface.
Today, this is not the case, and Antarctica is the greatest ice desert on the planet.
But life exists in Antarctica, and it is far more widespread than you may have thought.
According to a study in the journal Frontiers in Marine Science, far underneath the ice shelves of the Antarctic, there’s more life than expected.
Researchers have reported that stationary sponge-like creatures and previously unknown species have been discovered clinging to a rock far below an Antarctic ice shelf.
During an exploratory study, researchers drilled 900 meters of ice on the Filchner-Ronne ice shelf, located in the southeastern Weddell Sea. At a distance of 260 km from the open sea, in complete darkness and with temperatures of around -2.2 ° C, very few animals have been observed to survive under such “extreme” conditions.
Life and Extreme Environments Beneath Antarctica
Of an average of 1.5 MILLION square kilometers of icy territories, researchers have so far explored an area no larger than a tennis court.
Floating ice shelves represent the largest unexplored habitat in the Southern Ocean. They cover more than 1.5 million square kilometers of the Antarctic continental shelf, but only a total area similar in size to a tennis court has been studied through eight previous boreholes, researchers have reported.
This means that whatever is down there has likely never been seen by human eyes before. Therefore, we can say that the most guarded secrets beneath Antarctica are kept safe by several kilometers of ice. Only now are scientists venturing into spaces we’ve never been to before.
“Our discovery raises so many more questions than it answers, such as how did they get there? What are they eating? How long have they been there? How common are these boulders covered in life? Are these the same species as we see outside the ice shelf or are they new species? And what would happen to these communities if the ice shelf collapsed?” says biogeographer and lead author, Dr Huw Griffiths of British Antarctic Survey.
The creatures that live beneath miles of ice, in extreme conditions are as close as alien life as we can understand. In fact, studying these environments and the possible life inhabiting them can help scientists better prepare themselves for extreme environments and possible alien life on other planets and moons.
Present theories about what kind of life might survive under ice shelves suggest that all living creatures become less abundant away from the open ocean and sunlight.
Earlier studies have found small mobile predators and scavengers, such as fish, worms, jellyfish, or krill, in these habitats.
But filter-feeding organisms, which depend on food supplies from above, were expected to be among the first to disappear further under the ice.
This, as it would seem now, is not the case. It came as a surprise when teams of geologists, drilling through the ice to collect sediment samples, hit a rock instead of mud on the ocean floor. They were even more surprised by the video footage, which showed a large rock covered in strange creatures–extreme creatures living in an extreme habitat.
Researchers explain that this is the first-ever record recorded case of a hard-substrate community (i.e. a rock–boulder) deep in an ice shelf, and it seems to go against all previous theories about what types of life could survive there.
What’s more, given the water currents in the region, scientists estimate that this community of extreme life may be located up to 1,500 kilometers from the closest source of photosynthesis.
Other organisms are also known to collect nutrients from glacier melt or chemicals from methane seeps, but researchers won’t know more about these organisms until they have the tools to collect samples of these organisms, which is a challenge in itself.
But the clock is ticking. Climate change has been advancing at an accelerated pace in recent years and scientists are competing against the clock to study, document, and understand the life that exists in such extreme conditions.
Antarctica, Extreme Life, and Alien life
If life can exist on Earth in the most unimaginable places, far away from light and nutrients, what about other places in the solar system?
By studying these habitats on Earth, better understanding the animals that live there, researchers are essentially taking a step closer to understanding what alien life–possibly extreme alien life–might look like on planets and moons in our solar system.
Take for example Europa, one of Jupiter’s most famous moons. The smallest of the four Galilean moons is also the most prominent when it comes to places in the solar system where alien life might exist.
This Jovian moon has the smoothest surface of any celestial body in the solar system. In terms of size, it is a bit smaller than Earth’s moon. It has a thin atmosphere mostly composed of oxygen. Data gathered throughout the years suggests that beneath the surface, under seal kilometers of ice, there is a water ocean that could conceivably harbor extraterrestrial life.
If life thrives beneath several kilometers of ice on Earth, why would it not thrive beneath several kilometers of ice on a distant moon in the solar system?
By studying extreme life on Earth, scientists are preparing themselves for a scenario when we finally have the opportunity to explore places such as Europa.
Maybe extreme life beneath Antarctica and possible extreme life on Europa are not si different after all.
Read more about the discovery here.
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