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Life under the ice

Antarctica’s apparent barrenness hides an abundance of living organisms.

Many of our views of the continent of Antarctica are influenced by the words of the great polar explorers. Robert Falcon Scott, a man ultimately drawn to his death there, famously wrote of the Antarctic, “Great God, this is an awful place”. Present-day adventurers, from those who follow in the footsteps of Scott to the interior to tourists skirting around the edge, also trade on the sheer other-worldliness of Earth’s southern cap. The more remote Antarctica is, the more their sense of achievement. Head there by ship and — if you can stand the swell — you can peer over the side to watch the seawater change colour at the convergence point where cold currents circling the continent push up against the warmer waters of the southern Pacific Ocean.

To stand on Antarctica is truly like nothing else on Earth. On a still day, it is as if time itself has frozen. Senses, the essential guides to life on our planet, are almost redundant. There is no movement, no sound and no smell. Scientists who spend time there have been known to take curry powder on their field expeditions, to prepare spicy food to compensate for the lack of other stimulation. With centuries-old snow beneath your feet and only the occasional rumble of distant ice cliffs collapsing into the ocean, it is easy to imagine Antarctica — and those who spend time there — as isolated from the rest of the world and its life.

Look in a different direction, however, and the illusion fades. Scott knew this. “As one looks across the barren stretches of the pack, it is sometimes difficult to realise what teeming life exists immediately beneath its surface,” he wrote. “Beneath the placid ice floes and under the calm water pools the old universal warfare is raging incessantly in the struggle for existence.” There is life in Antarctica; you just need to know where to look.

For a sense of the teeming life that exists in the white continent, take a look at the Review article that we publish this week on page 431. Yes, there are only two species of flowering plants in Antarctica, but nobody said that the place had to look pretty. Think small. More than 200 species of lichen and 100 species of moss cling to the coastline and to patches of exposed rock. The packed snow that rests on the Antarctic bedrock is riddled with water-filled holes, and these subglacial lakes support the highest diversity of viruses of any known aquatic system.

Still not impressed? Head offshore — not too far — and the Antarctic waters thrive with so much life that they are considered to harbour more biodiversity than the celebrated Galapagos Islands. Throughout the Southern Ocean, researchers have discovered more than 8,000 marine species, most of which scrape a living from the seabed. From such a rich base, a network of life spreads upwards and outwards until it culminates in the region’s iconic seals, penguins, whales and albatrosses.

The point of this continental audit is threefold. Antarctica is alive — and therefore dynamic. Some change is bad and some good, but most points in the same direction: that Antarctica’s isolation from the rest of the world — biological, physical and cultural — is weakening. And in a world that increasingly looks to value from the natural environment, the Review article sums up the place nicely. “Antarctic ecosystems provide several services essential to planetary stability.” Awful or not, Antarctica is closer to home than many realize.

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Life under the ice. Nature 522, 392 (2015). https://doi.org/10.1038/522392a

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