Small Big Secrets of Antarctica

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A cold wind suddenly rises, and in a matter of minutes, the calm surface of the water is covered by pieces of ice detached from the coast and the icebergs. Its edges are sharp and compact like scalpels; scratch the hull of our boat, reminding us that any of them is capable of drilling the rubber. The marine biologist Diego Mojica rushes out of the water his fine collection network of zooplankton.

We took two months of expedition aboard the Colombian Navy ship (ARC July 20), collecting larvae of small animals from various latitudes during our navigation along the South American coast from the Panama Canal. The researchers want to see the range of distribution of the tiny organisms that float in the water column, and understand how climate change is affecting them from the tropics to the poles. Now, in Antarctica, the network is capturing them at the gates of the Lemaire Channel, one of the most amazing points of the White Continent.

We are surrounded by steep mountains that emerge vertically from the icy water. Practically in any direction where you look there are aggressive peaks of ice and black rock that have no name. Its slopes are shown as diamond faces announcing the presence of a landscape where a fatal accident is a very real possibility.

Swimming against the walls of the vessel at the tip of the Mojica network is plankton of various species, but the one that interests the researchers this afternoon is the krill: a crustacean three centimetres long similar to a shrimp. Captive in their own storm, there are several of them in the container where their transparent legs can be seen desperately beating the water. The biologist takes them to the ship’s laboratory and transfers them to a bottle for preservation. Floating within the ethane, the creatures have information that they can only deliver posthumously.

According to scientists, krill biomass is equivalent to almost all the weight of humans on the planet, although an expert in insects or microbes might not agree. The point is that 70% of that biomass is right here on the Peninsula. No wonder this is the place where the whales come to eat.

Small Big Secrets of Antarctica

Most people live in total disregard for Antarctic krill with the scientific name of Euphausia superba and it is the cornerstone of this ecosystem. In turn, the existence of the crustacean is possible thanks to the gigantic concentration of diatoms, or algae of a cell that is in these cold polar waters and that is its food.

Microscopic views, diatoms look like tiny cushions and crystalline boxes for pills, puffs with radial patterns of pores, protuberances and all kinds of ornaments. They are tiny but they are not simple or primitive, but advanced plants that began to populate the sea 140 million years ago.

Marine biologist James McClintock, who has been working at the Palmer research station for decades, explains that every summer diatoms, absorbing the sun’s energy, produce a photosynthetic pigment called diatoms that accelerates melting.

Then McClintock tells me something amazing: by gently warming their immediate environment, these unicellular algae alter global weather patterns thousands of miles away. Indirectly, but inexorably, these humble and powerful algae are at the same time capable of affecting the soybean crops in southern Brazil, the fishery on the Colombian coasts and the dry winds on the Mexican deserts. Your destiny is directly linked to ours. And here is another subjugating fact: there are more diatoms than stars in the universe.


Under the microscope of Mojica, on board the ship, there is a specimen of krill still alive. Their legs seem made of spun glass and refract the light each time they move. The body has a hard shell that shows red, blue and orange beams, and a translucent heart that beats at full speed. “Antarctic krill is one of the few animals that can reduce its size,” says McClintock. “During the winter months, light is scarce and therefore diatoms shrink inside their shell, cease feeding and use their energy reserves, in other words, krill hibernates like polar bears.”

Small big secrets of Antarctica

If something happened to this tiny crustacean, it would have repercussions not only on the whales but on seals, penguins, fish and squid. Here the entire food chain is based on krill. It is the only link between the diatom and a hundred-ton blue whale, that is, between single-celled algae and the largest of all animals. The numbers that support these links are amazing: an adult blue whale eats up to three tonnes of krill a day during the four months of the Antarctic summer. Humpback whales, whose numbers are recovering thanks to international protection, consume about 400 kilos per day. Until recently it was said that there is enough krill to satisfy the appetite of all its guests.

But now that krill is commercially exploited in Antarctica, there is an important need to be careful with the resource. Their meat has 10% protein, and since the 70s the Russians have added their flour to the daily bread of the workers. It is said to be the panacea for proteins for the people of sub-Saharan Africa while garnishing Japanese rice crackers and also being touted as a powerful source of Omega-3.

The question is indispensable: Could a massive exploitation, together with changes in temperature and water chemistry, affect the density and distribution of Antarctic krill with all its consequences?

Two years later, during my second expedition with the Colombian Antarctic Program in 2017, I notice something very strange: during the whole month, I practically did not see krill. I ask in all the research stations. Them neither. Perhaps it would be deeper in the water, perhaps this year its life cycle was delayed by changes in climate. Or maybe it’s just that it’s declining. We only know that that year we saw penguins that instead of krill are eating a gelatinous creature called salpa, which has no nutritional value.

Which is tragic because in addition to all the benefits of that animal, not long ago, scientists learned something else: krill is key when it comes to removing the carbon element, which is the culprit of our global warming. It works like this: diatomaceous algae absorb carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. The krill eats them. The krill goes to the bathroom and produces poop balls of respectable size. The balls are full of carbon and sink to the seabed, where there is so much cold, that industrial amounts of carbon are “sequestered” down there for centuries … as long as that sea does not heat up.

So every time a krill evacuates it is helping to reduce our emissions of greenhouse gases. This is how we should show more respect to this tiny polar vegetarian, one of the silver threads that unite Antarctica with the rest of the planet.


Lately, Mexican participation in Antarctic research has increased. Although the country does not yet have a research station or a polar program, the Navy participated in the ANTAR XXV Peru campaign, in the austral summer of 2017-18, working with Colombia, Uruguay and Peru. In 2016, Mexico received the oceanographic vessel ARM BIO8 Río Tecolutla, the same one that was used to find the remains of the Titanic, and whose capabilities could well be used for polar research.

The white continent influences the global climate, including the tropics.



Source: El Siglo de Torreon