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Antarctica's Melting Glaciers Causing Loss of Species Diversity Beneath Ocean Waves

First Posted: Nov 16, 2015 08:46 AM EST

As glaciers melt and temperatures warm, more is at stake than the loss of ice. Scientists have found that melting glaciers are causing a loss of species diversity among benthos in the coastal waters off the Antarctic Peninsula.

Over the past 50 years, temperatures have risen nearly five times as rapidly on the western Antarctic Peninsula than the global average. The impacts of the resulting retreat of glaciers have on bottom-dwelling organisms, though, remains unclear. That's why researchers have now mapped and analyzed the benthos-the bottom of the ocean-in Potter Cove off of the western Antarctic Peninsula.

In 1998, 2004 and 2010, divers photographed species communities at three different stations and at different water depths. They also recorded sedimentation rates, water temperature and other oceanographic parameters at the stations.

So what did they find? It turns out that some species can't properly adapt to the changing conditions.

"Particularly tall-growing ascidians like some previously dominant sea squirt species can't adapt to the changed conditions and die out, while their shorter relatives can readily accommodate the cloudy water and sediment cover," said Doris Abele, co-author of the new study, in a news release. "The loss of important species is changing the coastal ecosystem and their highly productive food webs, and we still can't predict the long-term consequences."

The researchers believe that increased levels of suspended sediment in the water is the main cause of the dwindling biodiversity in the coastal region. This occurs when the effects of global warming lead glaciers near the coast to begin melting, as a result of which large quantities of sediment are carried into the seawater.

The findings are published in the journal Science Advances.

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