The ANDRILL project is an international collaboration of researchers--including from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln-- drilling deep into the Antarctic geological record to help our understanding of glaciers and climate. The team recently announced a new discovery of an ice anemone under the Ross Ice Shelf. NET News talked with Bob Zook, chief engineer for the SCINI (Submersible Capable of Under-Ice Navigation and Imaging) project, which built a robot that goes under the ice in Antarctica and discovered the anemone.
NET NEWS: Can you explain the SCINI project?
BOB ZOOK: SCINI is an acronym that stands for Submersible Capable of Under-Ice Navigation and Imaging. We take pictures and we know where those picture were taken. The original idea behind SCINI was that we could drill a hole in the sea ice, go down to the sea floor, and look at the animals living on the sea floor. We wanted to get below the level that divers are stopped at—which is 130 feet. There’s an awful lot of territory deeper than 130 feet. We always had in the back of our minds the concept of going through the ice shelf, but we didn’t have the mechanism, we didn’t have the hot water drill. And when ANDRILL saw what SCINI was doing, they said, our drilling project could use some eyes and hands. We have a little gripper we can open and close. So we can show them what’s going on. And obviously they have the hot water drill that is used to drill through the ice shelf. We went out there to do a site survey, just to look at the area and make sure it was suitable for drilling, and that was when we had an opportunity to put the robot in there and test it. To make sure it could be done. Nobody had ever put a robot or ROV through a hole drilled in the ice. To give you some dimensions, we’re going through about 800 feet of ice. And this ice shelf, the Ross Ice Shelf, average thickness is about 1000 feet, and it’s almost the size of Texas. So it’s a very large piece of ice.
NET NEWS: You recently announced a discovery you made while using this robot to look under the ice shelf. Can you tell us more about that?
BOB ZOOK: We recently published a description of a new species. When we were under the ice shelf testing the robot, we sort of stumbled upon a complex and unique ecosystem. There’s an ecosystem living on the bottom side of this very large piece of floating ice. There’s almost 2000 feet of water below the ice, before the sea floor starts. The ice is approximately 800 feet thick. Living on the bottom of the ice is this ecosystem, and one of the main creatures living there is an anemone that has some very unusual behaviors. It bores into the ice. So it actually lives in a burrow inside the ice. This is a completely gelatinous animal, it pumps itself up with water to make itself about 1.5-2 inches long. But it’s very hard to imagine that a gelatinous animal like that could bore a hold in the ice. This is like an earthworm boring a hole through a piece of concrete. It’s very difficult to imagine that happening.
NET NEWS: When you found this anemone, were you surprised, excited?
BOB ZOOK: Yeah, that was a really good moment. It was almost 4 AM in the morning when we were doing this final dive. We’d lowered the vehicle several times into the water, but we hadn’t dropped the weight. There’s a weight on the vehicle to make it heavy, so it’s easy to go down the hole. We had to let go of that weight in order for the vehicle to actually fly. So we dropped the weight, and flew up to the ice shelf, and immediately there were these things that at first, to me, looked like crystals growing on the bottom of the ice. Because that was the only thing I could imagine was something reasonable inert, certainly not alive. But as we got closer it became evident that the bottom of the ice shelf was nearly carpeted with these anemones, in the thousands. That very first dive, we also had the opportunity to see another creature that we never saw again. It basically looks like an eggroll, 4-5 inches long, 1 inch in diameter. We’re pretty sure this is a sea cucumber of some kind, but there’s the potential for this to be a very unusual animal. It was a very exciting moment. We ended up on our knees on the floor. It was sort of a jaw-dropping moment and you literally get weak in the knees when those sort of thing happen.
NET NEWS: What complicates work in harsh environments like Antarctica? Why is it important that we explore these extreme environments?
BOB ZOOK: Antarctica is the best we have to going to another planet. It’s the best we can do right now. Mars is a long way away. There’s a lot of science to be had down here, a lot of low-hanging fruit. But low-hanging fruit in a minefield, so to speak, because Antarctica is a difficult place to work . Everything is more difficult down here, everything costs more money, takes more fuel. But Antarctica controls 80 percent of the world’s weather, and 100 percent of the world’s ocean currents. So this is something that actually applies to everyone who lives on the planet, and it’s very important that we understand this continent as much as possible.
The SCINI ROV research was funded by the US National Science Foundation. The ANDRILL Coulman High Project site surveys were jointly funded by the National Science Foundation and the NZ Foundation for Research, Science and Technology.
Watch the NET/PBS NOVA documentary "Secrets Beneath the Ice," to learn more about Antarctica's ice