Marine animals suggest evidence for a trans-Antarctic seaway

Aug 31, 2010
A schematic of partial collapse of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet showing a seaway between the Weddell and Ross seas (as well as Amundsen and Bellingshausen seas). Such a collapse would enable mixing of faunas but would also generate significant sea level rise.

A tiny marine filter-feeder, that anchors itself to the sea bed, offers new clues to scientists studying the stability of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet - a region that is thought to be vulnerable to collapse.

As part of a study for the Census of Antarctic Marine Life (CAML), scientists from British Antarctic Survey (BAS) analysed colonies of bryozoans from coastal and deep sea regions around the continent and from further afield.

They found striking similarities in particular species of bryozoans living on the continental shelves of two seas - the Ross and Weddell - that are around 1,500 miles apart and separated by the West .

This new finding, published this month in the journal , leads the science team to conclude that these animals could have spread across both seas only by means of a trans-Antarctic seaway through what is now a 2 km solid layer of ice. They suggest also that this seaway opened up during a recent interglacial (warm period between ice ages) perhaps as recently as 125,000 years ago when sea level was about 5 metres higher than today.

While some geological evidence suggests that the West Antarctic Ice Sheet (WAIS) collapsed at least once in the last million years, scientists are keen to determine the frequency of collapse and to understand the processes and connections between warm periods and deglaciation events. Elsewhere around Antarctica the that could help scientists estimate the date when West Antarctica was ice free, were obliterated during ice ages by advancing glaciers that bulldozed their fossil remains off the continental shelf.

Kymella Polaris: a cheilostome bryozoan at 32m depth at Outer Island, Signy Island. This species is bilaminar (it is double sided with zooids on both sides), bright orange in life but fades to white on death. It is a common Antarctic species occurring below 30m at Signy and below 15m at Rothera. Image: British Antarctic Survey

This new biological evidence contributes to glaciological investigations focused on the future stability of the WAIS, which may have a major impact on the rate of in the coming centuries. Scientists estimate that a complete collapse of the WAIS would raise global sea level by around 3.3 m to 5 m.

Lead author of the paper Dr David Barnes of British Antarctic Survey said,

"The West Antarctic Ice Sheet can be considered the Achilles heel of Antarctica and because any collapse will have implications for future sea level rise it's important that scientists get a better understanding of big deglaciation events. This biological evidence is one of the novel ways that we look for clues that help us reconstruct Antarctica's ice sheet history.

"Our new research provides compelling evidence that a seaway stretching across West Antarctica could have opened up only if the ice sheet had collapsed in the past.

This video is not supported by your browser at this time.
Video credit: British Antarctic Survey

"When we found groups of strikingly similar bryozoans hundreds of miles apart we knew we were onto something very interesting. Perhaps these species had survived the last ice age whereas in all other regions of they were wiped out. We know that after the last ice age groups of bryozoans dispersed freely between many of the regions we studied. But because the larvae of these animals sink and this stage of their life is short - and the adult form anchors itself to the seabed - it's very unlikely that they would have dispersed the long distances carried by ocean currents. For the bryozoans on both the Weddell and Ross sea continental shelves to be more similar to one another than to any of those found in the waters in between is striking indeed. Our conclusion is that the colonisation of both these regions is a signal that both seas were connected by a trans-Antarctic seaway in the recent past."

Explore further: Tropical depression 21W forms, Philippines under warnings

More information: Global Change Biology paper: Faunal evidence for a late quaternary trans-Antarctic seaway by David K A Barnes and Claus-Dieter Hillenbrand - see early view online version at: onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10… 86.2010.02198.x/full

Related Stories

New structure found deep within West Antarctic Ice Sheet

Sep 23, 2004

Ice sheet more susceptible to change than previously thought Scientists have found a remarkable new structure deep within the West Antarctic Ice Sheet which suggests that the whole ice sheet is more susceptible to future ch ...

Mysteriously warm times in Antarctica

Nov 18, 2009

(PhysOrg.com) -- A new study of Antarctica's past climate reveals that temperatures during the warm periods between ice ages (interglacials) may have been higher than previously thought. The latest analysis ...

Recommended for you

Questions of continental crust

6 hours ago

Geological processes shape the planet Earth and are in many ways essential to our planet's habitability for life. One important geological process is plate tectonics – the drifting, colliding and general ...

Better forecasts for sea ice under climate change

Nov 25, 2014

University of Adelaide-led research will help pinpoint the impact of waves on sea ice, which is vulnerable to climate change, particularly in the Arctic where it is rapidly retreating.

User comments : 2

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

Sancho
not rated yet Aug 31, 2010
Fans of the Neuschwabenland secret base theory take note.

gunslingor1
5 / 5 (1) Aug 31, 2010
SEA LEVELS DON'T CHANGE! THIS IS JUST MORE SCIENTIFIC CORRUPTION... SCIENTISTS TRYING TO MAKE A NAME FOR THEMSELVES AND KEEP THEIR JOBS. LIERS!

just kinding, had to beat em to their own rediculous standard arguement.

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.