New Zealand scientist using robots in race against climate change on Antarctic seafloor

  • 31/08/2022
"You wouldn't believe what's below the ice."
"You wouldn't believe what's below the ice." Photo credit: Supplied / Anthony Powell / Antarctica NZ

New Zealand's Antarctic scientists are employing robots to help document life on the seafloor in the Ross Sea as climate change continues to threaten many species.

The underwater robots are being used to conduct 'speed sampling', covering distances and depths that human divers can't. The remotely-operated vehicles (ROV) collect specimens and video footage from places unexplored.

"You wouldn't believe what's below the ice," said National Institute of Water and Atmospheric Research (NIWA) marine ecologist Vonda Cummings. 

"The amazing colour, amazing diversity and amazing abundance of life. It's definitely way more diverse than around the New Zealand coastline."

These seafloor communities are uniquely adapted to living in very cold but stable conditions and so anything that can vary that could be devastating.

"Because animals in Antarctica are living on the edge of existence, it might not take a lot of change for them to tip over and not do so well.

"The more we can do to prevent more carbon dioxide going into the atmosphere and into the ocean the better, and we should do it soon," Cummings said.

The new ‘speed sampling' method was developed by a team from NIWA means and around 600 specimens of invertebrates have been relayed back to a network of scientists in New Zealand for analysis.

It's part of a critical push to understand what the future holds for the creatures living in the frozen continent's unique environments.

The analysis is part of the ecosystems research programme of the Antarctic Science Platform, which is backed by the Government's Strategic Science Investment Fund.

The Platform coordinates the efforts of over 100 scientists investigating how climate change will affect Antarctica, and what the consequences for New Zealand and the rest of the globe will be.

It involves seven New Zealand universities and three Crown Research Institutes and is hosted by Antarctica New Zealand, which also provides logistics support.

Unless there were immediate reductions in CO2 and other greenhouse gas emissions, many changes would be irreversible - especially changes in the ocean, ice sheets and global sea level.

"Given the enormity of the challenge the world faces to cut emissions, we must focus and coordinate our efforts as scientists, and work closely with decision and policy makers so New Zealand can take action and prepare," Platform director Nancy Bertler said.

"There's no time to lose." 

The team lowered ROVs through holes drilled in the sea ice, allowing samples from seven different sites around Ross Island and the southern Victoria Land Coast, without the need to establish camps.

They also say they successfully deployed three new instrument groups which will remain in place for one year. 

That is planned to provide a long-term picture of coastal environmental conditions and simultaneous records of coastal environmental data from three widely separated locations, said Antarctica NZ.

Back in Aotearoa, the specimens are being analysed for genetics and isotopic signatures with colleagues from University of Otago, to help understand seafloor species, their habitats, whether populations in different areas are related, and how they fit into food webs.

The aim is to develop biogeographic models to forecast climate change impacts, and assist with protection and conservation.

The Ross Sea region contains one of the most productive marine ecosystems in the Southern Ocean, encompassing open ocean, pack ice and coastal habitats, including one of the world's largest marine protected areas.