Thursday, March 1, 2007

Antarctic ice melt reveals exotic creatures

Spindly orange sea stars, fan-finned ice fish and herds of roving sea cucumbers are among the exotic creatures spied off the Antarctic coast in an area formerly covered by ice, scientists reported Sunday. This is the first time explorers have been able to catalog wildlife where two mammoth ice shelves used to extend for some 3,900 square miles over the Weddell Sea. At least 5,000 years old, the ice shelves collapsed in two stages over the last dozen years. One crumbled 12 years ago and the other followed in 2002. Global warming is seen as the culprit behind the ice shelves' demise, said Gauthier Chapelle of the Polar Foundation in Brussels. "These kind of collapses are expected to happen more," he said. "What we're observing here is probably going to happen elsewhere around Antarctica." Melting ice shelves are not expected to directly contribute much to global sea level rise, but glaciologists believe these vast swaths of ice act like dams to slow down glaciers as they move over the Antarctic land mass toward the coast. Without the ice shelves, glaciers may move over the water more quickly, and this would substantially add to rising seas.

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