In the remote far south of our planet, where the Ross Ice Shelf brushes up against the land, a group of researchers are exploring the depths far below. Suddenly, they spot something strange lurking in the icy waters over 1,600 feet beneath the surface. But what can be hiding in such a bleak and inaccessible place?
Camped out in the freezing temperatures of Antarctica, this New Zealand research team were hoping to study a secret estuary hidden deep beneath the ice. But as they drilled through the frozen mass and lowered a camera into the unknown, they discovered a lot more than they’d bargained for.
Peering at the video screen, the team noticed that the feed was obscured by countless strange objects floating in front of the lens. But what were they — and what did they reveal about the alien world beneath the ice? Ruling out a fault with their equipment, the researchers were left facing one of their most puzzling mysteries yet.
For years, scientists have battled to understand the environment of Antarctica, a fragile ecosystem that hangs in the balance as the climate around us shifts. And now, they’ve found new insights in the unlikeliest of places. As the search for answers continues, our view of this frozen wasteland could forever be changed.
Founded back in 1992, the National Institute of Water and Atmospheric Research, or NIWA, is a New Zealand-based organization that works to promote understanding of the natural environment. By studying resources in their home countries and worldwide, members hope to encourage a sustainable approach to safeguarding planet Earth.
Over the years NIWA scientists have found themselves at the forefront of environmental research, studying everything from climate change to the emerging industry of aquaculture. In the lowland region of Aotearoa, for example, they’ve been analyzing how rising sea levels will affect coastal communities. And at Otago and Auckland universities, work’s ongoing to understand the ways in which tsunamis might impact upon New Zealand.
But where better to study our changing environment than Antarctica, the frozen wasteland that encompasses the South Pole? Covering well over 5 million square miles, this great continent’s almost totally covered by ice, with some of it measuring over 16,000 feet deep. And it’s home to more than three-quarters of our planet’s freshwater.
The Ross Ice Shelf
What happens in Antarctica, then, has a massive impact on our environment as a whole. And scientists come from around the world to study its ice shelves — the frozen sheets that fill the waters off the remote continent. Among these, the Ross Ice Shelf’s the biggest, measuring in excess of 180,000 square miles.
A Staggering Discovery
With the closest land mass, New Zealand, being located almost 3,000 miles to the north, the Ross Ice Shelf’s certainly remote. But that hasn’t stopped researchers throughout history from making the long trek out to this isolated spot, keen to unlock the secrets of this corner of Antarctica. And in May 2022 a study team announced a staggering discovery.
Working in the comparative comfort of a New Zealand laboratory, Victoria University of Wellington’s Huw Horgan had spotted something unusual in satellite images of the Ross Ice Shelf. In a NIWA statement dated May 31, marine physicist Craig Stevens explained, “He could see a groove in the ice. We suspected it might be an under-ice estuary.”
According to the statement, researchers have often theorized that there’s an unknown landscape deep beneath the ice sheet, crisscrossed by features such as rivers and lakes. Yet up until recently there’d been little opportunity to study this hidden world in depth. And so, an expedition was mounted to visit Horgan’s anomaly and see what could be uncovered.
The Kamb Ice Stream
A couple of years after the discovery, a team set out for the location identified by Horgan, a spot known as the Kamb Ice Stream. Joining Stevens, who conducts research for NIWA, were experts from Auckland, Otago, and Victoria universities, as well as GNS Science, an environmental consultancy based in New Zealand.
Difficult to Find
But the researchers faced challenges from the start. In the statement, Stevens explained, “It looked dramatic from the satellite imagery but when you get there and you’re looking around and you’re thinking: ‘Where’s the groove?’ But then we find this tiny, gentle slope and guessed we’d got the right spot.”
Arriving in Antarctica in January 2022, the team hoped to get to the bottom of whatever Hogan had spotted on the Ross Ice Shelf. But first, they were able to observe another phenomenon — one that took them completely by surprise. Just a few days after their arrival, you see, a volcano erupted near the island of Tonga, some 4,000 miles away.
As the shockwaves of the eruption subsided, Tonga was hit by a massive tsunami and other parts of the Pacific experienced surging tides. In fact, the aftereffects of the incident were felt right around the world. And five months later, NIWA researchers attributed New Zealand’s unusually dramatic sunsets to the same seismic activity.
Thousands of Miles Away
Of course, the team on the Ross Ice Shelf were far enough away to escape the worst effects of the eruption. But sensors that they’d applied to the ice picked up pressure waves echoing around a chamber deep underground. Despite the distance between the two places, then, volcanic activity in Tonga could be felt all the way from Antarctica.
“Seeing the effects of the Tongan volcano, which erupted thousands of kilometers away, was quite remarkable,” Stevens explained. “It’s also a reminder of just how connected our whole planet is. The climate’s changing and some key focal points are yet to be understood by science.”
As the excitement of the volcanic eruption faded, the team turned back to the task in hand. Soon, though, soon they faced another challenge. In order to study the anomaly, you see, they needed to reach whatever was on the other side of the Ross Ice Shelf. But a thick mass of frozen water stood between them and their ultimate goal.
Melting a Path
Undaunted, the team used a hose filled with hot water to melt a path through the unforgiving ice. And eventually, they succeeded. Lowering a camera through the hole, they prepared themselves to glimpse a world that no human had ever seen before. And what they found took them by surprise.
Not What They Expected
Immediately, the researchers spotted things that challenged their preconceptions of the Antarctic ice. Stevens said, “There was a huge element of discovery for us. The first surprise was that the meltwater tube wasn’t nice and smooth as we expected — it had a strange structure and was quite narrow, with loads of undulations.”
“It looked like a loaf of bread, with a bulge at the top and a narrow slope at the bottom,” Stevens continued. “The water within comprised four or five different layers flowing in different directions.” And while this observation might not seem like much to the casual observer, it has huge implications for Antarctic research as a whole.
An Even Bigger Shock
“This changes our current understanding and models of these environments,” Stevens added. “We’re going to have our work cut out understanding what this means for melting processes.” But while the team pondered the ramifications of this unexpected discovery in the ice, there was an even bigger shock still to come.
As the camera plunged out of the hole and into the cavern below, the team spotted a number of strange objects filling the screen. And at first, they believed that the equipment must be at fault. Speaking to The Guardian in June 2022, Stevens admitted, “For a while, we thought something was wrong with the camera.”
When the camera adjusted its focus, though, the objects remained. And this time, there was no doubting what they were. There, more than 1,600 feet beneath the surface, were countless arthropods, tiny relatives of the lobsters, crabs, and shrimp that we commonly see in much shallower water. But what were they doing there?
Life in the Dark
According to reports, the researchers never expected to encounter living organisms in such a dark, cold corner of the world’s oceans. But here it was staring them in the face. At just one-fifth of an inch long, these minuscule creatures apparently defied scientific explanation, clearly thriving in a place where resources were believed to be scarce.
Jumping for Joy
“In a normal experiment, seeing one of these things would have you leaping up and down for joy,” Stevens admitted. “We were inundated. Having all those animals swimming around our camera means there’s clearly an important ecosystem process happening there, which we will do more research on by analyzing water samples to test for things like nutrients.”
A Race Against Time
But unfortunately, researchers are concerned that they may be locked in a race against time to understand hidden ecosystems such as this one before they vanish for good. Stevens explained, “What is clear is that great changes are afoot — all the more if we don’t work together to reduce greenhouse emissions.”
British Antarctic Survey
Interestingly, the team from New Zealand aren’t the only people to have discovered signs of life deep beneath the frozen continent. Back in February 2021 researchers from the British Antarctic Survey announced the results of an expedition to the Filchner-Ronne Ice Shelf. There, they hoped to examine the unique geology of the region, which is located around 1,200 miles west of the anomaly first spotted by Horgan.
In order to collect samples, though, the team first had to penetrate through a thick sheet of ice around a half-mile thick. Like the New Zealand researchers, geologist James Smith and his co-workers used hot water to forge a path towards their final destination. And after 20 long hours, they succeeded in breaking through to the seawater beyond.
Carefully the team lowered a camera and other equipment into the newly-created hole. But despite several attempts, they couldn’t collect any sediment from the seafloor. Later, though, holed up in his tent on the freezing Antarctic ice, Smith reviewed the video of the experiment — and realized why it’d failed.
As the camera had descended out of the borehole and towards the bottom of the ocean, Smith saw, it’d collided with a rock obstructing the sediment below. Speaking to Wired in 2021, he marveled, “It’s just one big boulder in the middle of a relatively flat seafloor. It’s not as if the seafloor is littered with these things.”
Somehow, the team had managed to pick exactly the wrong spot to drill — or so they thought. And it wasn’t until biologist Huw Griffiths took a closer look that they realized they’d stumbled across something extraordinary. Studying the footage, he saw that the rock was covered in a layer of strange film.
The layer, Griffiths theorized, was probably composed of some kind of bacteria. But that wasn’t all. Scattered across the rock, he saw, were numerous sponges, a type of organism that thrives in underwater environments around the world. Even so, nobody had expected to find them — or any life at all — here.
Far From Daylight and Food
According to Wired, the rock that Smith discovered is located more than 150 miles away from the nearest daylight, making it difficult to imagine how biological life could exist there. And it’s even further from any known source of nutrients or food, deepening the mystery surrounding these strange, almost alien-like organisms.
So, what’s going on? Well, it isn’t actually all that unusual for creatures to live deep within the world’s oceans, out of reach of even the faintest trickle of light. But typically, these organisms — particularly those that remain static — need a passing source of nutrients to survive. In most places, for example, they feed off the biological material that filters down from the waters high above.
Here, though, there are creatures living beneath a thick sheet of ice — so what are they feeding on? According to experts, they may have tapped into an alternative, horizontal flow of nutrients instead. But even then, these food sources would need to travel an incredible distance before reaching the sponges clinging to this remote rock.
A Long Journey
Apparently, these nutrients could’ve covered almost 400 miles before arriving beneath the Filchner-Ronne Ice Shelf — and may have traveled more than twice that distance. But even though this might seem very unlikely, it’s a theory that’s actually backed up by research. In Antarctica, you see, cool water sinks to the bottom, pushing warmer areas out away from the frozen continent.
“There’s going to be some inflow to replace that,” the California Academy of Science’s Rich Mooi told Wired. “And that inflow, even over hundreds of kilometers, is going to carry organic matter.” So do these currents bring the isolated lifeforms trapped beneath the Antarctic ice the nutrients that they need to survive?
At the moment, there are more questions than answers presenting themselves to Smith and the team. Did the creatures arrive on the rock as the result of a nomadic lifestyle, for example, or were they released into the currents as eggs? And how long have they been eking out a living in one of the most unlikely spots on Earth?
Verge of Disappearing
Unfortunately, these questions will remain unanswered until a second expedition returns to Antarctica to take a closer look. But like the researchers who found similar signs of life in the Ross Ice Shelf months later, Griffiths is concerned that these anomalies may be on the verge of disappearing. Speaking to Wired, he said, “There is a potential that some of these big ice shelves in the future could collapse and we could lose a unique ecosystem.”