A research team on the coast of West Antarctica has uncovered evidence that could indicate the effects of climate change deep beneath one of most isolated parts of the ocean. Earlier this month, a team of 40 scientists, ice drillers, and technicians celebrated the accomplishment of breaking through a 2,400 foot-thick ice sheet with a video probe that revealed pebbles on the sea floor, which normally wouldn’t be found at that depth.
What is so strange about pebbles under the ice sheet? At this depth, scientists at the Whillans Ice Stream Subglacial Access Research Drilling Project expected to find fine, silty debris like sand or dust, since it could be carried there by winds or current. Pebbles, though, would most definitely have been dropped from the moving ice above, and only if the ice were melting enough to release the pebbles from their frozen grip. That’s why scientists fear this finding may indicate climate change is happening deep below the ice.
Previous to this discovery, it was generally agreed upon in the scientific community that the sub-glacial floors were probably impervious to the shifting temperatures observed elsewhere in the ocean. Finding evidence of climate change in a place that humans had never even touched before really shakes up our perspective. Or, at least it should.
Researchers on the Antarctic team emphasize that these findings are preliminary, and the presence of these pebbles isn’t definitive proof that climate change and melting ice are the cause. They caution against jumping to conclusions, primarily because it’s impossible at this time to know when the pebbles landed on the ocean floor. It could have happened hundreds or even thousands of years ago, as far as we know. That said, trip co-leader Russ Powell does seem to think that climate change is most likely to blame.
If he’s right, and the Antarctic ice fields are melting as much from the bottom as they are from the top, time will tell what a dire impact these changes will have on the future of the oceans, the earth, and indeed the human race.
Lead image via Shutterstock. Others via Whillans Ice Stream Subglacial Access Research Drilling.