Image: NASA Earth Observatory

The Larsen C iceberg may have broken away from Antarctica in July, but the sciencing is just commencing.

So far, scientists have been limited to checking in on what’s happened to the ice shelf and the 2,240-square-mile iceberg it calved by satellite. Those images have been instructive (and often spectacular), but nothing compares to getting up close and personal with a geological event that will rapidly reshape the region’s ecology.

That’s why researchers with the British Antarctic Survey (BAS) are planning the first boat expedition to visit the newly-opened waters. It’s one of a handful of experiments scientists will be undertaking following a nearly unprecedented event.

In this case, researchers will explore and document a marine ecosystem that’s been hidden by ice for 120,000 years. What they find will offer a unique glimpse into the past.

The data they gather will set scientists up with a solid baseline to monitor future changes and predict what comes next as Antarctica’s floating ice shelves retreat and even collapse due to climate change.

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“We’re seeing the formation of new ecosystems,” Hugh Ducklow, an oceanographer at Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, told Earther. “When the ice goes away, more sunlight can get in, allowing the gradual development of new ecosystems where little photosynthesis occurred previously. The main significance of the proposed BAS cruise is that it allows us a first-hand look at these processes allowed by ice shelf disappearance.”

What’s sitting in the the Larsen C iceberg’s wake is a treasure trove of scientific data waiting to be collected from the ocean surface to the sea floor. The massive scale of the iceberg gives scientists a wide latitude to monitor how species and ocean currents respond to a strong shock to a system after eons of stability.

“The global scientific community has been offered an unprecedented chance to study how marine life responds to this kind of dramatic change,” Keith Reid, CCAMLR’s science manager, said in a September statement.

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Scientists will be able to look at how near-surface dwelling species react to suddenly abundant sunshine and what colonizers show up first. At the bottom of the water column, scientists will be looking at if organisms down there migrate.

And importantly to those of us on land, scientists will be seeing if more carbon dioxide gets sucked up at the surface and shuttled to the deep waters beneath. That’s a process playing out throughout the Southern Ocean, but scientists don’t have a good grasp on it or how sudden changes like the loss of a huge hunk of ice will alter carbon uptake.

The cruise will visit the waters recently vacated by a Delaware-size piece of ice in February 2018. That may seem like ages from now, but its the blink of an eye for research cruises, which are planned years in advance due the logistical challenges and grant cycles.

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The rapid deployment is happening because the now open water triggered an 2016 international agreement signed off on by the Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (CCAMLR). Scientists recognized that climate change is rapidly altering the landscape in Antarctica, particularly when it comes to glacier retreat and ice shelf collapse, so they made a pact for how they would approach research as huge chunks of ice broke off.

The agreement labels open water exposed by rapid changes as “Special Areas for Scientific Study.” Those areas are off limits to fishing for two-years, giving scientists a grace period to rapidly assess what’s going on. The agreement focuses on the Antarctic Peninsula, which has seen Larsen A and B ice shelves disintegrate prior to Larsen C’s descent into instability.

This is the first time the agreement has been triggered and it’s unlikely it will be the last.

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Warm air was in part responsible for Larsen B’s collapse. While most researchers suggest the crack that caused the Larsen C iceberg to splinter off was due largely to naturally-caused internal stresses inside the ice shelf, climate change will exert an increasingly strong influence on the region as oceans and air continue to warm.