By Jo Marchant
Biologists are racing to secure a visit to a newly revealed region of the Southern Ocean as soon as it is safe to sail there. One of the largest icebergs ever recorded broke free from the Larsen C ice shelf on the Antarctic Peninsula in July. As it moves away into the Weddell Sea, it will expose 5,800 square kilometres of sea floor that have been shielded by ice for up to 120,000 years. If researchers can get to the area quickly enough, they’ll have the chance to study the ecosystem beneath before the loss of the ice causes it to change.
“I cannot imagine a more dramatic shift in environmental conditions in any ecosystem on Earth,” says Julian Gutt, a marine ecologist at the Alfred Wegener Institute for Polar and Marine Research in Bremerhaven, Germany.
It is difficult for Antarctic scientists to respond quickly to sudden events, because polar-research vessels are usually booked months, if not years, in advance. A German research mission led by Boris Dorschel, head of bathymetry at the Alfred Wegener Institute, was already scheduled to visit the Larsen area and will now include a biodiversity survey of the exposed region in March 2019.
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