Tag Archives: #glacier

Clepsydra Elegy

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It should come as no surprise that one of the earliest tools humans used to tell time was water. After all, it’s what we are, what we need to live.

A clepsydra is an ancient clock system that, at its most basic, uses two bowls, one nested inside another. The outer bowl is filled with water; the empty inner bowl has a hole at the bottom which allows a controlled flow of water to seep in.

Ancient Persian clock in Qanats of Gonabad Zibad. Source: Maahmaah/Wikipedia

Ancient Persian clock in qanats of Gonabad, Zibad.
Source: Maahmaah/Wikipedia

Once the inner bowl has filled with water, it is emptied and placed on the surface of the water again until it sinks.

Timekeepers as early as 500 BC kept an eye on the water flowing from one bowl to another to determine fair distribution of irrigation resources between farmers (in ancient Persia, by using water channels known as qanats). Needless to say, the position of timekeeper was important, and subject to oversight by other village elders to ensure parity.

Ancient water clock used in qanat of gonabad 2500 years ago. Source: Maahmaah/Wikipedia

Ancient water clock used in qanat of Gonabad 2500 years ago.
Source: Maahmaah/Wikipedia

We’ve had a water clock of sorts on a planetary scale for as long as long as humans have recorded history, and beyond.

We call them glaciers. They rise, they retreat. The bowls are biggest at the two poles, and for the duration of what we know as human civilization, the Arctic and the Antarctic have been keeping time over the procession of the seasons and climate that have allowed our species to farm and flourish.

It’s only recently, over the past century or so, that we have realized these clocks are not static. They are what water always is: in a state of flux. We’ve known for decades that the melting of the ice at the two poles could spell a new era, one in which the inner bowl of the clepsydra stays submerged and our measure of time is changed.

The level of Arctic sea ice is, once again this year, at its lowest recorded level.

What we need, maybe, are more vigilant timekeepers.

Here’s one of my current playlist videos, performed against the backdrop of calving Arctic ice. An elegy is a lament for something that has already passed away – let’s do everything we can to work against that scenario for the Arctic.
Listen for the crash at the beginning:

 

Sipping Glaciers

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Travel in the 21st century means you can fly to the other side of the world for a few short days with little more than a toothbrush and a change of clothes.

Which is what I did last week when I flew from Geneva, Switzerland to Palmer, Alaska.

It took me four blissfully uneventful but long flights on very large planes (and a drive in a large SUV) to get to my destination, but the fifth flight was of an entirely different nature, and decidedly retro in more ways than one.

The fifth plane. All photos: PKR

The fifth plane.
All photos: PKR

Pre-flight, we stopped off at a local place and tried a few locally produced goods. Actually, our pilot Rob was having lunch. We arrived late and decided on afternoon cocktails in lieu of food. After all, we were just along for the ride.

Both cocktails were made with vodkas produced by Alaska Distillery in Wasilla, Alaska, just up the road from Palmer.

The Imperial Mimosa included the unlikely (for me) ingredient of Sprite, which I can honestly say I haven’t drunk since around 1985. More importantly, it included Permafrost Vodka, which is made from iceberg meltwater harvested in Prince William Sound.

I suppose of all the things glacier meltwater might become instead of staying put in a glacier, premium vodka is decidedly not the worst.

The Glacier Made Imperial Mimosa (right) and the Alaskan Birch Syrup Coffee Cooler (left).

The Glacier Made Imperial Mimosa (right) and the Alaskan Birch Syrup Coffee Cooler (left).

The Coffee Cooler was a version of a White Russian, one of my favorite deadly sins when it comes to cocktails. It was made using Birch Syrup Vodka, birch syrup being made from a sweet tree sap and similar to maple syrup.

Now, it was a bit early in the afternoon to start trying straight shots of these two vodkas to get the true shape of their taste, so we stuck with our two Alaska-sized cocktails.

And they were both delicious – unique in their own ways. The Coffee Cooler is probably the most flavorful White Russian I’ve ever had, likely due to the sweet vodka and the excellent locally-roasted coffee. The Imperial Mimosa was surprisingly un-Spritey, refreshing and clean.

The menu and the mixes at the Palmer City Ale House.

The menu and the mixes at the Palmer City Ale House.

It appears that Alaska Distillery spirits are readily available in some U.S. states and not at all in others. Nor is are they available yet in Europe, as far as I can tell.

Which is a pity, since I was sorely tempted to try their other highly-acclaimed spirits, especially the smoked salmon vodka and the hemp-seed variant known as Purgatory. But we had a flight to catch.

And while 21st-century travel means getting around the world and back with just a toothbrush and a change of clothes, 21st century travel limitations prohibit carrying bottles of vodka in carry-on luggage over three flights back home with transfer times that require sprints between terminals.

What this means, of course, is that I will have to go back to Alaska.

As for the post-cocktail flight in the Cessna, more on that tomorrow.

Cold Case

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Melting ice cores. Source: Jacquelyn Hams/PolarTrec

Melting ice cores.
Source: Jacquelyn Hams/PolarTrec

It might seem like the project to take ice to Antarctica is the very definition of redundancy. Like taking coal to Newcastle or turning on the lawn sprinkler while it’s raining.

But this ice endeavor is more like trying to archive some of the world’s most ancient books even as the ink rapidly vanishes from all the pages.

Ice from the world’s glaciers contains a wealth of information about the planet’s history.

Samples taken from glaciers around the world can be used to create computer models of past climates and how the climate has changed over time. Many samples have been taken at sites in Antarctica and Greenland – but far fewer have been analyzed at the various glaciers around the world.

A picture of a thin section of glacier ice placed between two crossed polarizers. The different orientation of the individual crystals shows up as colour differences. The ice itself is clear. Caption/Image: Centre of Ice & Climate, Univ. of Copenhagen

A picture of a thin section of glacier ice placed between two crossed polarizers. The different orientation of the individual crystals shows up as colour differences. The ice itself is clear.
Caption/Image: Centre of Ice & Climate, Univ. of Copenhagen

Comparing polar ice, which can be hundreds of the thousands of years old, to glacial ice from mountains can reveal the impact of human activity.

CO2, human-generated pollutants, pollen: Whether it’s on the Andes, the Alps, the Rocky Mountains, or the Himalayas, whatever was in the air and water when a glacial layer formed is trapped and frozen in place – at least, until the ice melts.

And as everyone knows by now, the ice is melting.

“In some of the warmer areas of the world the surface water is starting to melt. It then trickles all the way through the ice, taking with it the information from the surface so it’s smearing out any record that we might be able to take from the past,” Robert Mulvaney, a glaciologist with the British Antarctic Survey, explained to the BBC.

A drilling tent set-up at the Dôme mountain pass, at an altitude of 4,250m, on the summit of Mont Blanc. In 2016, ice cores will be collected from there and transported to Antarctica for storage.  Photo: Bruno Jourdain, LGGE/OSUG/UJF

A drilling tent set-up at the Dôme mountain pass, at an altitude of 4,250m, on the summit of Mont Blanc. In 2016, ice cores will be collected from there and transported to Antarctica for storage.
Photo: Bruno Jourdain, LGGE/OSUG/UJF

The first ice cores will come from the Col du Dome, a glacier research site that sits at 4350 m (14,200 ft), just below the summit of Mont Blanc in France. The French National Centre for Scientific Research, part of the new ice storage project, measured temperatures inside the Col du Dome glacier in 1994 and again in 2005, and found a rise of 1.5°C.

Commercial freezer storage would be an interim option, but in the long-term, could be prohibitive in terms of cost as well as the potential for disastrous power failures.

The new Antarctic archive for glacial cores is set to be established at the Concordia Research Station, a French-Italian base that is manned year-round.

The archive itself will consist of ice cores sealed in bags, and stored in a giant frozen trench 10 m below the surface at a steady temperature of -50°C.

The hope is that this will keep the archive safe for future research over the course of the next decades and perhaps even centuries.

Air bubbles (left) and ice crystals (right) in an ice core sample. Source: USGS

Air bubbles (left) and ice crystals (right) in an ice core sample.
Source: USGS

Of course, the main challenge to the project – besides warming glaciers – is funding. The glacier archiving project, by definition, will not be yielding the kind of short-term results so popular among funding agencies and governments.

In a way, it’s fitting that the focus on short-term results and benefits is the main hurdle to keeping the glacier ice cores cold – after all, a focus on short-term benefits and profits is part of why the glaciers are rapidly melting in the first place.

 

 

Arctic Oil Hubris

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Black treasure (2014) blown glass Artist: Antoine Brodin

Black treasure (2014) blown glass
Artist: Antoine Brodin

The U.S. government has approved plans by Royal Dutch Shell to begin drilling for oil off the Alaskan coast this summer. This comes after years of industry lobbying to explore what some estimate to be major oil deposits in the Chukchi Sea. Some estimates run up to 15 billion barrels.

On the one hand, the U.S. administration has followed a course of promoting environmental responsibility.

On the other, this administration has pursued a policy of domestic production and self-reliance. Unfortunately, that self-reliance has been pegged to oil and gas production, including fracking. Despite the inevitable oil spills (and no matter what the companies say, they are inevitable) and the damage done by drilling and fracking, fossil fuel exploitation continues unabated.

Meduse.X (2014), ink on paper Artist: Antoine Brodin

Meduse.X (2014), ink on paper
Artist: Antoine Brodin

Despite common knowledge that carbon-based fuels are leading to rapid and irreversible changes in the Earth’s atmosphere (and no matter what a few voices say, the knowledge is common and the scientific consensus is resounding), the U.S. government and others continue to subsidize, promote, and approve fossil fuel development.

The word that comes to mind is ‘hubris’. In modern usage, hubris means exaggerated confidence or pride.

Shell is one of the most powerful companies in the world, as well as one of the richest. It also has a long track record of overestimating oil reserves, of regular oil spills on a large scale, of inconsistent safety for workers, inhabitants and environment alike. Shell oversaw oil spills in Nigeria that were the size of the catastrophic Exxon Valdez spill – not just once, but annually over the course of years.

Hubris implies arrogance so great that suffering or humiliation will follow.

Usually, though, the humiliation or suffering is experienced by the party demonstrating hubris.

Birdy (2014), blown glass, sandblasted Photo: Antoine Brodin

Birdy (2014), blown glass, sandblasted
Photo: Antoine Brodin

In the case of Shell, the humiliation is never experienced by the company. Not by the individual decision-makers, not by the company as a whole.

The humiliation and suffering is experienced by anything affected by the inevitable oil spills and the damage done by exploitation and drilling. People can argue in favor of jobs or for energy independence, but in the end, it is the company that makes the money by using the resources, land and environment that should belong to everyone.

While these lands and waters are being exploited, they belong to the company exploiting them – at least until the inevitable spill.

When it comes to the damage and clean-up, suddenly the soiled lands and seas belong to all of us again.

Corolla (2014) blown glass Photo: Antoine Brodin

Corolla (2014) blown glass
Photo: Antoine Brodin

It’s like a gambler who only gambles with someone else’s money, keeps any winnings, and assigns any losses to the foolish lender.

In ancient Greek, the word ‘hubris’ implied an shameful act perpetrated for personal gratification that brought shame upon both the victim and the perpetrator. Its contemporary equivalents might be closer to what we think of as ‘contempt’ or ‘insolence’.

And considering this decision to drill in the Arctic, a region under severe environmental pressure already due to carbon emissions, perhaps the ancient Greek version of hubris is more suitable. This plan shows genuine contempt for the Arctic, for the environment, and for anything that doesn’t turn a profit.

If only a company could feel shame.

Hubris (2014) Hot glass sculpted Artist: Antoine Brodin

Hubris (2014) Hot glass sculpted
Artist: Antoine Brodin

 

 

Antarctic Shiver

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Everyone knows the best scare stories are those in which the most obvious and visible danger turns out to less dire than an unsuspected peril revealed only later, the deadfall that sends a shiver down the listener’s spine.

We’ve all heard about the Antarctic ice shelf melt-off that’s been taking place with increasing speed and frequency. But at least there was always a comforting swathe of East Antarctica, the thick part that wasn’t floating like a massive ice cube in a warming drink.

The Totten Glacier catchment basin (blue outline) is three-quarters the size of Texas and holds the ice and snow that flows through the glacier. Credit: Australian Antarctic Division via LiveScience

The Totten Glacier catchment basin (blue outline) is three-quarters the size
of Texas and holds the ice and snow that flows through the glacier.
Credit: Australian Antarctic Division via LiveScience

As it turns out, what lies beneath a large part of East Antarctica is not, as previously thought, solid earth. Rather, it appears that there might be water flowing through large subsea troughs, regions of the seabed that slope away from the ice above, allowing warmer water to melt the largest ice sheet in the world from below.

Most research to date has focused on West Antarctica. An international team of scientists carried out the study, published in Nature Geoscience, to investigate why satellite images seemed to show that the Totten Glacier was growing thinner.

Carrying out measurements by plane flyovers, the resulting cartography indicated the presence of invisible valleys and warm water carried there by heavy salt concentrations.

The aircraft that researchers flew over East Antarctica to map Totten Glacier. Credit: Chad Greene via LiveScience

The aircraft that researchers flew over East Antarctica to map Totten Glacier.
Credit: Chad Greene via LiveScience

The ice is 480 m (1600 ft) thick in some places. To get to the bottom of the ice from the height of a plane, three methods were used: gravitational measurements, radar and laser altimetry.

The radar was used to measure the thickness of the ice. Gravitational pull on the plane was measured at various points to determine the location of the seafloor beneath the ice.

The next step will be to send down underwater to verify initial study results and monitor activity of Circumpoloar Deep Water at the base of the glacier.

Actually, like turning on all the lights after the end of a good scary story, the next step for me will be to remind myself that if and when the sea rises to Pliocene Epoch levels, we might have had time to develop more effective ways of living with a lot of water in places where there is now land.

I also recommend a visit this other, more benign exploration into how ice behaves, the Icicle Atlas. I think the images of icicles forming look a bit like shivers running down a spine:

 

A clip from the wonderful Icicle Atlas, a creation of Stephen Morris at the Physics Department at the University of Toronto that explores how icicles form. A visit to the Rogue's Gallery of icicles is a mesmerizing and informative trip. Source: Icicle Atlas/Univ. of Toronto

A clip from the wonderful Icicle Atlas, a creation of Stephen Morris at the Physics Department at the University of Toronto that explores how icicles form. A visit to the Rogue’s Gallery of icicles is a mesmerizing and informative trip.
Source: Icicle Atlas/Univ. of Toronto

Weaving a New Mantle

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Moving at a glacial pace is how we’ve always described something so sluggish as to be practically immobile. Geological time is what we sometimes say when we talk about things that take forever to occur, at least when using the yardstick of human life spans.

The Earth’s mantle, that layer between the outer core of the planet and the surface, is mostly solid and we like to think of it that way.

But in what we consider geological time, it moves like a thick liquid. As it turns out, though, it moves a little more quickly than that, especially when a tectonic plate is sinking or rising. Sometimes at speeds 20-30 times faster than expected.

Embroidering the Earth's Mantle Artist: Remedios Varo

Embroidering the Earth’s Mantle (1961)
Artist: Remedios Varo

And then there’s the news that the ice of the Antarctic is melting faster than expected, great chunks of it breaking off and raising the sea level like to many ice cubes added to a glass of water.

What’s happening to the land that’s been beneath the ice all this time? What happens when the weight of eons is lifted and dispersed? The land rises.

However, the land is rising at a pace that is not very glacial. The land ‘rebound’ was expected to move in geological time. Instead, according to a recent study published in Earth and Planetary Science Letters,  it’s moving so quickly that researchers can chart its rise of over 15 mm (0.59 in.) per year using GPS. In some areas, the uplift could reach 47 mm (1.85 in.).

The cause is thought to be temperature or chemical changes in the composition to the Earth’s mantle, making it ‘runnier’ beneath the Antarctic than elsewhere.

The climate change we fashion in human time nudges the hand of the planetary clock to speeds we might just be able to see with the human eye.

 

 

Reaching New Shores

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Circular plot of migration flows of at least 170,000 people between and within world regions during 2005 to 2010. Tick marks show the number of migrants (inflows and outflows) in millions.  Click to enlarge.  Image courtesy of Abel et al., Science/AAAS via Co.Exist

Circular plot of migration flows of at least 170,000 people between and within world regions during 2005 to 2010. Tick marks show the number of migrants (inflows and outflows) in millions.
Image: Abel et al., Science/AAAS via Co.Exist

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) recently released a report on the development of climate change and its effects on humans.

The 2600-page report is the result of three years work and the collaboration of 300 scientists.

It makes for mostly grim reading, with an emphasis on climate impact on food security (not positive), on extreme weather events (increasing), and on poverty (again, not positive).

The global migration patterns in the interactive graphic above illustrate twenty years of migration statistics from 196 countries. Created by the Wittgenstein Centre for Demography and Human Capital in Vienna, the graphic uses software lifted from the field of genetic research.

It’s interesting to note that the number of people who actually leave their country of birth for good has remained at more or less the same level across decades – a mere 0.6% of the population. As a long-term expat among many long-term expats, it often seems like the number must be much higher, but such is the power of subjective perception. What we think we see up close isn’t always what’s happening if seen at a distance.

Quoted in Co.Exist, the authors say, “These long-distance flows are effective at redistributing population to countries with higher income levels, whereas return flows are negligible.” So, migration has been for mainly economic reasons, or for reasons of security offered in higher-income countries.

Given the IPCC report and its sobering conclusions regarding food security and extreme weather events, I wonder how these migration patterns and numbers will develop over the next few decades – which areas will see more migration inflow. The higher ground countries as well as those with higher-income?

Will we as humans follow many animals, flee an ever-warmer planetary midsection, and migrate north?

And what about that migration number of people who permanently leave their home country, 0.6%, that’s been steady for so long? Should climate change redraw the coastlines of continents and the boundaries of nations, what will count as ‘migration’ and what will count as keeping one’s head above water?

The World - Rising Sea Level, first map of its kind on such a scale and level of complexity, depicts our planet as it would look without its polar ice caps, with sea levels 260 ft higher as they are today. Click map for a larger version. Artist: Jay Simons

The World – Rising Sea Level, first map of its kind on such a scale and level of complexity, depicts our planet as it would look without its polar ice caps, with sea levels 260 ft higher as they are today. This detailed map can be viewed in all its glorious cartographic futurism by clicking on the map or following the link of the artist, Jay Simons.
Click map for a larger version.
Artist: Jay Simons

 

 

 

What we talk about when we talk about war (V)

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Syrian desert. Photo: Marija Miloradovic/TrekEarth

Syrian desert.
Photo: Marija Miloradovic/TrekEarth

 

Permafrost warms, glaciers recede and life that has been dormant is revived – and biodiversity surprises abound. A number of otherwise extinct mosses and lichens have been exposed by the retreat Ellesmere Island’s Teardrop Glacier.

A 30,000-year-old virus, benign but previously unknown, was found in ice cores pulled from  Siberian permafrost.

Some apprehension is understandable; not all giant viruses are benign.

Credit: Julia Bartoli & Chantal Abergel; Information Génomique et Structurale, CNRS-AMU

Credit: Julia Bartoli & Chantal Abergel; Information Génomique et Structurale, CNRS-AMU

But another powerful environmental force has revived a virus much smaller, more recent, and more lethal. War supports biodiversity of the worst kind.

The polio virus, all but eradicated, has been making a comeback in the Middle East due to the retreat of vaccinations during the four-year conflict. A 95% vaccination rate is considered sufficient to keep the virus from infecting populations. The rate of vaccination during the Syrian war was estimated at 68% in 2012, and is less now.

Twenty five cases of polio have been confirmed in Syria since October 2013. Another 84 cases of measles have been confirmed in the first week of 2014, according to the World Health Organization. And an estimated 500,000 Syrian children, many unvaccinated, are now living as refugees in neighbouring countries.  A wider spread of the disease is feared. Vaccination programs are underway in refuge camps.

Polio is caused by a human enterovirus called the poliovirus. There are three types; Type 2 has been eliminated, Types 1 and 3 still exist, with Type 1 being the most pervasive and dangerous. Source: GPEI site photo gallery

Polio is caused by a human enterovirus called the poliovirus. There are three types; Type 2 has been eliminated, Types 1 and 3 still exist, with Type 1 being the most pervasive and dangerous.
Source: GPEI site photo gallery

Human-caused climate change extends to areas long covered by glaciers; it will be interesting and hopefully not too frightening to see what kind of viral biodiversity rebounds from the ice.

In the case of polio, however, we had come so far in pushing it to the brink of extinction. Watching its return as a result of human negligence and war is one environmental development that is both a sign of the tenacity of the virus, and of our own disregard for the best of which we are capable.

Dickens, Luck & the Woolly Mammoth

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A Mammoth tusk extracted from ice complex deposits along the Logata River in Taimyr, Russia.   Photo: Per Moller / Johanna Anjar  via Reuters

A Mammoth tusk extracted from ice complex deposits along the Logata River in Taimyr, Russia.
Photo: Per Moller / Johanna Anjar via Reuters

“Life is made of ever so many partings welded together.” Charles Dickens (born 7 February 1812), Great Expectations

So many of Charles Dickens writings are concerned with those who succeed and those who fall by the wayside. Usually in his novels, success (or at least, survival) can be due to a number of factors in life, chief among them being that fickle friend, Luck. Failure (or death) comes often enough in the form of hunger or at the hands of those stronger and more brutal.

And so to the survival or demise of prehistoric megafauna, the woolly mammoth, the cave bear, the giant sloth, the woolly rhinoceros, the great creatures that once wandered the planet and still populate our imagination.

A new study out in Nature set out to find a strategy to predict which creatures might survive the current climate change based on past extinctions. What they found, finally, was that Luck played as much of a role as human hunting and encroachment, habitat destruction, and changing temperatures.

A visit to my favorite tree-of-life site, OneZoom.org, shows that only a fraction of the megafauna around 40,000 years ago are still with us today, with the numbers dropping regularly. The fact is that some species were just more fortunate than others.

Tall forb park, Swift Creek Research Natural Area, Montana. Photo: Susan Marsh / Bridger-Teton National Forest.

Tall forb park, Swift Creek Research Natural Area, Montana.
Photo: Susan Marsh / Bridger-Teton National Forest

The woolly mammoth, for example, had long been thought to have gone extinct due mainly to hunting. However, the study points to the woolly mammoth’s reliance on foraging for the protein-rich forbs, flowering plants, that once carpeted its northern territories. As the climate changed, the prairies and fields of forbs gave way to less nutritious grasslands. The woolly mammoth, like many of Dickens’ most virtuous characters, simply starved to death.

Dickens’ world was nothing if not unfair in whom it chose to favor.

From Sketches by Boz (1835), essays by Dickens on Seven Dials, a poor section of London. Source: Smithsonian Magazine

From Sketches by Boz (1835), essays by Dickens on Seven Dials, a poor section of London.
Source: Smithsonian Magazine

For the extinct heat-sensitive Eurasian musk ox, rising temperatures proved too much for it to survive.

For the dwindling number of elephants and rhinos still alive today, it may be a human hunger for their tusks and horns. For the polar bear, receding ice.  Some of them may just surprise us by proving more adaptable than expected.

But in the meanwhile, it might be a good idea to take a lesson from Dickens on the 202nd anniversary of his birth, and do all we can, for as many as we can.

Luck doesn’t have to be the name of the game.

Floating Seafloor

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Floating Seafloor
A vast community of ice anemones (Edwardsiella andrillae) living on the underside of the Ross Ice Shelf. Photo: Frank Rack

Glowing ice anemones (Edwardsiella andrillae) living on the underside of the Ross Ice Shelf.
Photo: Frank Rack

In 2010, a research team for the Antarctic Geological Drilling Program (ANDRILL) was working off the Ross Ice Shelf, deploying a remote-controlled submersible robot beneath the ice to investigate south pole water currents. A deep hole (850 ft / 259 m) was drilled in the ice, the robot plopped into the water below, and then it happened.

Where the researchers expected to be looking at open water and currents, they found an entirely unexplored ecosystem attached to the underside of the ice.

Anemones, marine worms, amphipods, and a previously unknown creatures simply dubbed ‘the eggroll’. Anemones, which are usually known for burrowing into sand, are not known for living on ice. The entire underside of the ice shelf was inhabited as if it were an upside-down sea floor.

The engineering project had become a different creature itself, a voyage of evolutionary exploration.

It’s an excellent reminder that sometimes the best way to discover the unexpected is to go in search of something else.

Close-up of ice anemones (Edwardsiella andrillae) living on the underside Photo: Frank Rack

Close-up of ice anemones (Edwardsiella andrillae) living on the underside
Photo: Frank Rack

Original study: Daly M, Rack F, Zook R (2013) Edwardsiella andrillae, a New Species of Sea Anemone from Antarctic Ice. PLoS ONE 8(12): e83476. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0083476