Antarctica: A lab under the sea ice to study climate


A  laboratory  25.5 meter below sea level in the icy Antactic waters of the Ross Sea to study climate by analyzing the growth of calcium carbonate skeletons of coralline algae and marine invertebrates like bryozoans. This is the objective of the two-year project "Ice-ClimaLizers", coordinated by ENEA as part of the 34th Italian expedition to Antarctica, in collaboration with two CNR institutes (Marine Sciences of Bologna and Engineering of the Sea of Genoa), the Institute of Oceanology of Sopot (Poland), the University of Portsmouth and the Museum of Natural History of London (United Kingdom) and the University of Burgundy (France). Funded by the National Program for Research in Antarctica (PNRA), Ice-ClimaLizers (Antarctic biomineralizers as proxies of climate change) is the first Italian climate project focusing on the role of Antarctic biomineralizers as indicators of climate change and in particular of ocean acidification.

During underwater activities at temperatures below zero, the researchers collected the target species on the seabed of the Tethys Bay inlet, supported by the Navy divers and with the aid of a remote-controlled ROV submarine for the exploration of deep environments (up to 120 m). After being marked with non-toxic substances to indicate the beginning of the experiment, the species were repositioned on the bottom of Tethys Bay in 12 cages equipped with light and temperature sensors and positioned inside an aluminium structure made by the technicians of the Italian Antarctic base "Mario Zucchelli".  In addition, a probe placed in the frame will record for a year the main environmental data (pH, temperature, oxygen, light intensity, conductivity). The cages and multiparametric probe will be removed during the 35th expedition of the PNRA at the end of 2019, comparing the data on the organisms with the environmental data recorded by the probe, to validate the function of mineral skeletons as indicators of climate change, but also to understand their adaptation potential in the oceans of the future.

"The variety and extraordinary adaptability of its species make the Antarctic an ideal environment for  adaptive studies. Among the Antarctic calcareous organisms, bryozoans and coralline algae are of particular interest for their qualities as bioindicators and biodiversity promoters, in addition to being potential target organisms in studies on climate change", Chiara Lombardi of the Biodiversity and Ecosystems Laboratory of ENEA, pointed out. "Antarctic bryozoans stop their growth during winter and form on their skeletons a sort of scar, similar to tree trunk rings, from which it’s possible to get an estimate of the colony.’s age Furthermore, through complex physiological processes, these organisms are capable of forming a calcium carbonate skeleton, which contains information on the environmental conditions in which it formed. Thanks to its calcareous component the red coral algae, widespread on the seabed of Tethys Bay, is a very important substratum for the life of many organisms and, despite its apparently resistant structure, is extremely vulnerable to climate change ", Lombardi explained. "The climate of the Antarctic Peninsula is rapidly changing and we expect the southern ocean to be vulnerable to changes induced by human activities, and in particular to the effects of acidification. It is therefore essential to know the responses of these organisms, in order to protect them and safeguard the associated biodiversity, especially in an area like the Ross Sea, which became a Protected Area in 2017”, Lombardi concluded.

The role of Navy operators in the 34th expedition to Antarctica

Chiara Lombardi, ENEA
The team of the Comsubin -the Italian Navy Divers and Navy Raiders Command- formed by two divers and a raider,  with the primary task of coordinating all the underwater activities carried out in Antarctica, guarantees both the safety of immersions for the researchers at the base, and of the interventions required as part of the research projects. The divers are part of the interservice team (Italian Army, Navy, Air Force and Carabinieri) which supports the 34th expedition to Antarctica,

More than 100 immersions in the Ross sea have been conducted up to now, for a total of over 60 hours at an average temperature of -1.8 ° C.  In addition to logistic activities concerning the setting up  of remote fields in the Antarctic hinterland and the underwater verification of the conditions of the Italian base Mario Zucchelli, the Comsubin operators provided support to the researchers in conducting important studies to analise marine biology, climate change and new biopolymers capable of degrading organic pollutants and / or tolerate heavy metals.

The 34th Summer Campaign of the National Antarctic Research Program (PNRA)

Funded with 23 million euro by the Ministry of Education, University and Research and implemented by ENEA for logistic operations and by the National Research Council (CNR) for planning and scientific coordination, the 2018-19 Summer Campaign foresees the participation of 250 technicians and researchers, both Italian and foreign, involved in approximately 50 research projects, ranging from ecology to medicine, to astronomy to pharmacology, conducted at the national and international Antarctic bases, in the climate of international collaboration which characterizes the only continent entirely dedicated to science, also one of the main engines of the planet's climate system.


For more information please contact:

Chiara Lombardi, ENEA - Biodiversity and  Ecosystems Laboratory,

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