University of South Florida

USF College of Marine Science


Past climate change to blame for Antarctica’s giant underwater landslides

Research vessel JOIDES Resolution surrounded by sea ice as it approaches Antarctica's eastern Ross Sea. CREDIT, Jenny Gales, University of Plymouth.

An international team of scientists found weak biologically rich layers of sediments hundreds of meters beneath the seafloor which crumbled as oceans warmed and ice sheets declined.

IMAGE ABOVE: Research vessel JOIDES Resolution surrounded by sea ice as it approaches Antarctica's eastern Ross Sea. CREDIT, Jenny Gales, University of Plymouth.

Scientists have discovered the cause of giant underwater landslides in Antarctica, which they believe could have generated tsunami waves that stretched across the Southern Ocean.

Dr. Amelia Shevenell

Dr. Amelia Shevenell 

An international team of researchers, including Dr. Amelia Shevenell from the University of South Florida College of Marine Science, has uncovered layers of weak, fossilized biologically rich sediments hundreds of meters beneath the seafloor, forming beneath extensive areas of underwater landslides, many of which cut more than 100 meters into the seabed.

Writing in Nature Communications, they say these weak layers – made up of historic biological material – made the area susceptible to failure in the face of earthquakes and other seismic activity.

These weak layers formed at a time when temperatures in Antarctica were up to 3°C warmer than they are today, when sea levels were higher and ice sheets much smaller than at present.

With the planet currently going through a period of extensive climate change – once again including warmer waters, rising sea levels and shrinking ice sheets – researchers believe there is the potential for such incidents to be replicated.

By analyzing the effects of past underwater landslides, they say future seismic events off the coast of Antarctica might again pose a risk of tsunami waves reaching the shores of South America, New Zealand and Southeast Asia.

The landslides were discovered in the eastern Ross Sea in 2017 by an international team of scientists during the Italian ODYSSEA expedition.

Scientists revisited the area in 2018 as part of the International Ocean Discovery Program (IODP) Expedition 374 where they collected sediment cores extending hundreds of meters beneath the seafloor.

By analyzing those samples, they found microscopic fossils which painted a picture of what the climate would have been like in the region millions of years ago and how it created the weak layers deep under the Ross Sea.

The new study was led by Dr. Jenny Gales, Lecturer in Hydrography and Ocean Exploration at the University of Plymouth, and part of IODP Expedition 374.

She said: “Submarine landslides are a major geohazard with the potential to trigger tsunamis that can lead to huge loss of life. The landslides can also destroy infrastructure including subsea cables, meaning future such events would create a wide range of economic and social impacts. Thanks to exceptional preservation of the sediments beneath the seafloor, we have for the first time been able to show what caused these historical landslides in this region of Antarctica and also indicate the impact of such events in the future. Our findings highlight how we urgently need to enhance our understanding of how global climate change might influence the stability of these regions and potential for future tsunamis.”

Dr. Amelia Shevenell, University of South Florida, College of Marine Science, St. Petersburg Florida, said: “This study illustrates the importance of scientific ocean drilling and marine geology for understanding both past climate change and identifying regions susceptible to natural hazards to inform infrastructure decisions. Large landslides along the Antarctic margin have the potential to trigger tsunamis, which may result in substantial loss of life far from their origin. Further, national Antarctic programs are investigating the possibility of installing submarine cables to improve communications from Antarctic research bases. Our study, from the slope of the Ross Sea, is located seaward of major national and international research stations, indicating that marine geological and geophysical feasibility studies are essential to the success of these projects and should be completed early in the development process, before countries invest in and depend on this communication infrastructure.”

VIDEO ABOVE: Drilling into the seabed of the Ross Sea during International Ocean Discovery Program (IODP) Expedition 374 to recover one of the hundreds of cores, which helped scientists assess the cause of historic landslides. Credit: Laura de Santis.

Professor Rob McKay, Director of the Antarctic Research Centre at Victoria University of Wellington, said: “The main aim of our IODP drilling project in 2018 was to understand the influence that warming climate and oceans have had on melting Antarctica’s ice sheets in the past in order to understand its future response. However, when Dr Gales and her colleagues on board the OGS Explora mapped these huge scarps and landslides the year before, it was quite a revelation to us to see how the past changes in climates we were studying from drilling were directly linked to submarine landslide events of this magnitude. We did not expect to see this, and it is a potential hazard that certainly warrants further investigation.”

Jan Sverre Laberg, from The Arctic University of Norway, Tromsø, said: “Giant submarine landslides have occurred both on southern and northern high latitude continental margins, including the Antarctic and Norwegian continental margins. More knowledge on these events in Antarctica will also be relevant for submarine geohazard evaluation offshore Norway.”

This release was adapted from one generated by the University of Plymouth.

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