Friday, March 13, 2015

195.8 - And Another Thing: researchers find fish living beneath 740 meters of ice

And Another Thing: researchers find fish living beneath 740 meters of ice

Enough of all that for now. It has been some time since we have done an episode of And Another Thing, our occasional side trip away from all things political to take a look at some cool stuff - usually, as it is today, cool science stuff. We have two such bits today, and to refer to this first one as cool science is especially apt because that's what it is: cool. Literally.

Scientists have been studying the interactions between glaciers and the land at the point where the glacial flow is entering the sea, the better to understand how glaciers move and the potential impact on them of climate change. To do that you obviously have to see the bottom of the glacier and to do that, obviously, you have to drill through it.

Researchers had been doing that at the Ross Ice Shelf, the world's largest slab of glacial ice. It hangs off the coast of Antarctica and yes, it is big: about the size of France. It's the one marked in red on the map. The drilling site, naturally enough, was right by the coast of Antarctica.

They drilled down through 740 meters of ice - that's over 2400 feet, getting close to a half-mile - to reach a narrow wedge of seawater at the bottom. This wedge of seawater is just 10 meters, about 33 feet, deep, trapped between hundreds of meters of ice above and the barren, rocky seafloor below.

It is a place of perpetual dark and perpetual cold, a location so remote, so hostile, the scientists expected to find nothing but microbes living there.

Instead, to their great surprise, they found fish. Fish and other aquatic animals.

To make it even more surprising, the spot is 850 kilometers - about 530 miles - from the outer edge of the ice shelf, which is the nearest place where the ocean is in contact with sunlight that allows tiny plankton to grow and sustain a food chain.

Which leaves the scientists with a big question: What the heck are these fish living on? There are ideas, but as of yet no final answers. Despite what too many think ("Scientists think they know everything.") this kind of thing, unexpected discoveries and unanswered questions, this is what scientists live for.

Something else this brings up is the possibility of life on other worlds, including even some within our own solar system - specifically, Jupiter's moon called Europa, whose frozen crust is believed to contain an ocean of liquid water within.

Fish under the Ross Ice Shelf
Creatures like the fish found under the Ross Ice Shelf are known collectively as extremophiles, creatures that live under conditions once thought too dark or too hot or too cold or too acidic or too something else to harbor life. The more we look inward at our own planet, the more we find that life is more tenacious, can sink its hooks into a wider variety of conditions, than we thought. And the more we look outward from our own planet, the more other planets we find - approaching 2000 and counting - and the more likely that some of them that are at least roughly the same as Earth - about the same size, rocky not gaseous, and in the so-called "Goldilocks zone" where the heat from the local sun allows for liquid water, a planet neither frozen solid nor boiling hot.

So are there ETs, is there any intelligent life, out there? Well, that's a difficult question, the answer to which would be sheer speculation. We certainly have no evidence of any. But is it reasonable to say, based on what we know today, that there life, life of some sort, out there?

Oh, yeah. Absolutely. And how cool is that.

Sources cited in links:

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