When Two Divers Explored Beneath The Antarctic Ice, They Discovered A Secret Underwater World

It’s 2016, and Australian scientists are hard at work in the bone-chilling cold of East Antarctica’s O’Brien Bay. The conditions here are remarkably brutal and unforgiving – especially for a team used to much warmer climes. But, thankfully, the ordeal turns out to be well worth it. The remote-controlled vehicle that the scientists have sent under the ice has brought back crucial data, you see. And those images captured on the device’s camera are both completely unexpected and vividly beautiful.

It’s a true triumph for the group, who are employed by the Australian Antarctic Division. The Kingston, Tasmania, department operates three permanent bases in the Antarctic: Davis, Mawson and Casey. And the researchers at O’Brien Bay were working out of the last of these stations, which had originally been constructed back in the ’60s.

Casey was actually a replacement for the disused U.S. base Wilkes, which had previously been overwhelmed by encroaching snow and ice. And proving just how harsh the Antarctic climate can be, this new building itself actually fell victim to corrosion caused by the ferocious conditions. That meant it ultimately had to be rebuilt towards the end of the 1980s.

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Back in the day, though, Casey was known as Repstat – rather unoriginally, an abbreviation of “replacement station” – before it was named in honor of Australia’s Governor-General. Richard Casey was in office when the base first opened in 1969, and he had long been a keen advocate of Antarctic research.

So, would Casey have been impressed with the tribute? Probably. The station had been constructed to an innovative design that involved elevating the buildings. These structures were set in a long line and were all connected by a tunnel made from corrugated sheet metal. And raising the buildings, it was thought, would act to stop the build-up of snowdrifts that had left the previous U.S. base unusable. Sadly, though, the folks responsible for choosing iron for that tunnel didn’t factor in its propensity to corrode.

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In the late 1980s, then, there was a comprehensive rebuilding of the full set of Australian Antarctic research bases. The stations now boasted steel frames set into robust concrete foundations, and they offered a more comfortable existence to the scientists based there – including the ones carrying out that crucial research in 2016. Now, Casey even has a bar, Splinters, with beer brewed on-site.

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When researchers aren’t chugging down some suds, however, they’re busy finding out more about the fascinating continent of
Antarctica. For instance, they’ve looked at the Law Dome – a massive ice formation that rises 4,850 feet into the skies. Specialists have also investigated the geology of the bedrock that the East Antarctic ice cap rests upon as well as the processes that drive the formation of glaciers.

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Animal lovers may have even wanted to get involved in the project studying the adorable Adélie penguin. And thanks to researchers’ work on the species, we now know a lot more about the number of birds there. While previous estimates had put the East Antarctic Adélie population at about 2.4 million, scientists have now revised that figure upwards to as many as six million. That’s a whole lot of penguins.

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The team working at O’Brien Bay in 2016 weren’t there for those birds, though. Instead, they were embarking on an even more important piece of research. Simply put, the experts were investigating one of the possible impacts that increased CO2 levels and global warming may have on the world’s oceans.

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One of the results of carbon dioxide-driven climate change is a change in the pH value of seawater around the world. Worryingly, we now know that this H20 is becoming less alkaline and more acidic. That’s because an increase in the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere means an increase in gas dissolved in the oceans.

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There was a reason, too, why the researchers had made a beeline for Antarctica. In an AAD press release, project leader Dr. Johnny Stark is quoted as saying, “Carbon dioxide is more soluble in cold water. [And as] polar waters are acidifying at twice the rate of tropical or temperate regions… we expect these ecosystems to be among the first impacted from ocean acidification.”

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Stark also pointed out that some 25 percent of the carbon dioxide that finds its way into our atmosphere ends up in the oceans. “Research shows the pink encrusting algae, known as crustose coralline algae, may decrease in extent in a more acidic future ocean… Antarctica may be one of the first places we see detrimental effects of ocean acidification on these organisms,” he added.

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So, in order to measure any ocean acidification caused by climate change, the Casey Station researchers had placed data recording equipment beneath the ice in O’Brien Bay. This incredible technology was then able to determine the acidity and other properties of the seawater at 60-minute intervals.

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And, crucially, the remotely operated vehicle (ROV) that was used to retrieve the equipment was fitted with a camera. When the scientists viewed the footage captured by this device, then, they received an astounding insight into the life that lies below the ice of O’Brien’s Bay.

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That ice is pretty substantial, too. It’s about five feet thick for more than three-quarters of the year, with water temperatures beneath at a chilly 29.3 °F. But luckily for the researchers, they didn’t have to plunge into the frigid depths themselves. Instead, they simply used the ROV to record what lurked around 100 feet below the surface.

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What exactly did the Australians discover? Well, one of the scientists, biologist Dr. Glenn Johnstone, has revealed all. In the AAD press release, he is quoted as saying, “When you think of the Antarctic coastal marine environment, the iconic species such as penguins, seals and whales usually steal the show. This footage reveals a habitat that is productive, colorful, dynamic and full of a wide variety of biodiversity, including sponges, sea spiders, urchins, sea cucumbers and sea stars.”

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And Johnstone emphasized the sheer splendor of these sights in a 2016 interview with the Australian TV station ABC. “It’s an area that we have been working very close to for a long time, but we’ve never actually dived or put any cameras down,” he said. “It was a great surprise to find such a beautiful, vibrant environment.”

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“When you’re up above [the ice], there’s very little color,” Johnstone continued. “There’s whites and blues and grays. All the animals are black and white, and as cute as they are, the real diversity and the real health of the environment is down on the sea floor.”

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And these freezing waters contain a wide variety of species. The underwater footage revealed sponges, pink algae, starfish and bizarre-looking worms, for instance, along with a host of sea spiders, urchins and sea cucumbers. Remarkably, these colorful creatures provide an extraordinary palette of stunning hues in what may otherwise be a relatively dreary environment.

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So, this vital research project at O’Brien’s Bay had one very welcome but unintended outcome. Thanks to that ROV and the camera it hosted, we now know that a dynamic and astonishing variety of sea creatures swim along Antarctic seabeds. And that’s probably not something you’d expect to see in a continent mainly known for its ice.

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