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Blog - Larsen ice shelf: Mission to explore uncovered Antarctic ecosystem

Scientists leave this week to try to reach the part of Antarctica uncovered by the world’s biggest iceberg, A-68.

The 5,800 sq km frozen slab broke away from the continent in 2017, exposing ocean floor that had been covered for at least 120,000 years.

A German-led expedition wants to see what’s living in this opened ecosystem.

The researchers will need luck on their side, however. The region they are targeting in the Weddell Sea is notorious for thick sea-ice.

This could prevent their ship, RV Polarstern, from getting anywhere near their desired destination.

But if the team succeeds, it could catalogue a bounty of novel specimens, says Dr Huw Griffiths from the British Antarctic Survey (BAS).

“We’ve been studying Antarctica for a long time now, but even in areas we think we know pretty well – about 10% of what I find at the bottom of the sea is new to science. So, I’m expecting that in an area that no-one’s ever been to before – for that number to be much higher, and for there to be a wider variety of new species,” he told BBC News.

A-68 broke from the Larsen C Ice Shelf – an amalgam of glacier fronts that have flowed off the Antarctic Peninsula and lifted up to form a floating platform.

Species that persist under such shelves must do so in the absence of light. Survival means eating other organisms or scavenging the detritus that happens to drift under the platform on currents.

Polarstern’s biologists are expecting to find new types of worms, sea stars, brittle stars, sea-pigs and other sea cucumbers – the sorts of animals that will sift seafloor muds for a meal. But crustaceans, such as isopods and amphipods, will no doubt have found their niche as well.