July 29, 2005

Arctic ocean depths teeming with life — explorers

By David Ljunggren

OTTAWA (Reuters) - The remotest depths of the Arctic ocean
are surprisingly full of life, including previously unknown
species of jellyfish and worms, a scientific team which just
finished exploring the area said on Friday.

The scientists, led by the University of Alaska, used robot
submarines and sonar to probe an isolated 12,470-foot
(3,800-meter) basin off Canada's Arctic coast where they fear
species could be at risk from global warming.

"We were surprised by the abundance and the diversity of
life in this environment. Even at a depth of 3,000 meters we
found animals on the sea floor, we found sea cucumbers ... and
all kinds of jellyfish and crustaceans," said Rolf Gradinger of
the University of Alaska, the chief scientist on the voyage.

"Some of the species that we saw are completely new to
science, they have not been described in any area of the earth
so far," he told reporters on a conference call. The species
are a jellyfish and three kinds of benthic bristle worms.

The team also found unexpectedly high numbers of cod as
well as the first squid, octopus and flea-like crustaceans ever
seen in an icy environment.

Scientists from the United States, Canada, Russia and China
spent 30 days on the U.S. icebreaker Healy as part of a $1
billion, 10-year global Census of Marine Life funded by
governments, companies and private donors.

The Healy returned on Tuesday with thousands of specimens
from the Chukchi and Beaufort Seas and the Canada Basin, a vast
bowl walled by steep ridges and covered with ice.

The team said the data would help measure the impact of
climate change and, should polar caps continue receding, the
damage done by increased energy exploitation, fishing and

"This is a benchmark and we hope that in the next 10, 20 or
30 years these kinds of studies will be repeated to see whether
any kinds of changes have occurred in the composition and the
abundance of animal life," said Gradinger.

U.N. studies say the Arctic could be largely ice-free in
summer by 2100 because of global warming, blamed mostly on gas
emissions from cars, power plants and factories.

The scientists say that if the northern polar cap melts,
more southerly species could enter Arctic waters and disrupt
the ecology. Some of the exotic life forms they found can be
seen at http://www.coml.org/medres/iceocean/iceocean.htm.

The team also said explorers would carry out similar
studies in the Southern Ocean around the Antarctic, where
conditions are much less settled than in the Canada Basin.

"Scientists now theorize the swirling Southern Ocean
current is an evolutionary caldron, upwelling Antarctic
nutrients and mixing life forms from the Pacific, Indian and
Atlantic oceans, returning them in centrifuge-like fashion,"
the team said in a statement.

The Australian Antarctic Division in Hobart will lead the
project from December 2007 to March 2008. It will involve up to
200 scientists from 30 countries and take samples from as deep
as 16,500 feet.

"Because the Southern Ocean appears to be so critical to
the biology of the global ocean system, scientists are eager to
understand how continued climate change, if realized, will
affect it and the other oceans in turn," the team said.