Wednesday, March 24, 2010

antarctica shelters abundant microbial life

WaPo | Antarctica makes up more than 10 percent of the world's land mass, but it was long assumed that -- except for some hardy penguins -- it had virtually no life. With ice and snow blanketing virtually the entire continent, the environment was believed to be just too harsh and barren to support anything beyond occasional human visitors.

Antarctica remains as foreboding as ever, but scientists have in recent years learned they were spectacularly wrong about its inhabitants. While the life might not be visible, it is most definitely there: in the snow, in the ice, in the lakes and streams under the ice, and in the waters under the ice sheet.

It is the kingdom of microbes, of tiny bacteria and other microscopic organisms that in some Antarctic regions eke out a bare existence, and in others are almost flourishing. They are extremely small, but one Antarctic researcher has calculated that the mass of living cells in Antarctica equals or exceeds all the living creatures in the freshwater lakes, rivers and streams elsewhere on Earth.

"There was this idea until not very long ago that Antarctica was a place frozen in time, without life," said Chuck Kennicutt, an oceanographer and co-chair of a conference held last week in Baltimore on subglacial Antarctic research.

"Every field season we learn how dynamic and alive it actually is," he said, referring to period between October and February, when the continent is its warmest and research activity is greatest. "When it comes to understanding our planet, Antarctica is about the last frontier."

The conference, which drew 100 scientists from around the world, was called at an especially auspicious time for those interested in life and subglacial systems on "The Ice," as the continent is often called.

That's because three major projects are underway that, over the next five years, will greatly expand and refine our knowledge about hidden worlds that only recently were discovered.