Robots race against climate change on the Antarctic seabed
New Zealand Antarctic scientists are racing to document life on the Ross Sea seabed before ecosystems change, perhaps forever, as the world warms.
Underwater robots have been deployed to perform “rapid sampling”, covering distances and depths that divers cannot. Remotely Operated Vehicles (ROVs) collect specimens and video footage from unexplored locations.
“You wouldn’t believe what’s under the ice. Incredible color, incredible diversity and incredible abundance of life. It’s certainly much more diverse than along the New Zealand coast,” says Vonda Cummings, marine ecologist at NIWA.
These seabed communities are particularly adapted to live in very cold but stable conditions.
“Because animals in Antarctica live on the edge of existence, it might not take a lot of changes for them to tip over and not do so well.
“The more we can do to prevent more carbon dioxide from entering the atmosphere and the ocean, the better, and we should be doing that soon.”
This new “rapid sampling” method developed by a team from the National Institute for Water and Atmospheric Research (NIWA) means that around 600 invertebrate specimens have been passed on to a network of scientists in New Zealand for analysis – part of a critical push towards understanding what the future holds for creatures living in the unique environments of the frozen continent.
NIWA’s Leigh Tait operates a Boxfish ROV revealing the seafloor beneath the sea ice. Photo: Anthony Powell
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It is part of the Antarctic Science Platform Ecosystems Research Program, which is hosting a conference this week at Te Herenga Waka ̶ Victoria University of Wellington. Supported by the government’s Strategic Science Investment Fund, the platform coordinates the efforts of more than 100 scientists studying how climate change will affect Antarctica and what the consequences will be for New Zealand and the rest of the world.
It involves seven New Zealand universities and three Crown research institutes, and is hosted by Antarctica New Zealand, which also provides logistical support.
Platform director Nancy Bertler says scientists are working urgently. The warming would go beyond 1.5 to 2°C if there were no immediate reduction in emissions of CO2 and other greenhouse gases. Many changes would be irreversible, especially changes in the ocean, ice caps, and global sea levels.
“Given the enormity of the challenge the world faces to reduce emissions, we need to focus and coordinate our efforts as scientists, and work closely with decision makers and policy makers so that New Zealand can act and prepare There is no time to waste.
Specimens recovered at 7 locations, monitoring at 3 locations
By lowering the ROVs through holes drilled through the sea ice, the NIWA team collected samples from seven different sites around Ross Island and the southern coast of Victoria Land, without needing to establish some camps.
One of the main achievements of the fieldwork has been the use of underwater robots for sampling transects, providing access to a depth range of 10-100 m, going beyond what is possible for dive teams.
The team also successfully deployed three new arrays of instruments, which will remain in place for a year, providing a long-term picture of coastal environmental conditions and simultaneous recordings of coastal environmental data from three very remote locations.
Back in New Zealand, the specimens are analyzed for genetics and isotopic signatures with colleagues at the University of Otago, to help understand seafloor species, their habitats, whether populations from different areas are related and how they fit into food webs. The aim is to develop biogeographic models to predict the impacts of climate change and help with protection and conservation.
The Ross Sea region contains one of the most productive marine ecosystems in the Southern Ocean, encompassing open ocean, sea ice and coastal habitats, including one of the largest marine protected areas in the world.