Tuesday, November 2, 1999 Published at 16:27 GMT
Armageddon in Antarctica
Thriving Antarctic sea floor communities are utterly destroyed
By BBC News Online's Damian Carrington
Icebergs crashing against the sea floor could be the most devastating natural disaster that any living community on Earth experiences.
Floods, earthquakes and even meteorite impacts cannot claim such total destruction. The project leader, Professor Lloyd Peck, told BBC News Online: "In biological terms it is outrageous - it's almost a sterile environment."
Up to 20% of the world's oceans are prone to catastrophic ice berg impacts. Even ocean floor as deep as 500m is at risk.
"The biggest icebergs are the size of Oxfordshire and weigh two billion tonnes. The impact force is greater than that of cruise missiles - it's immense," says Professor Peck.
His team, including colleagues from Gent University, Belgium, set up three underwater test sites near Signy Island, Antarctica. All were destroyed within 18 months.
They dived beneath the sea and used vacuum pumps to suck up the animals living on the sea bed both before and immediately after the berg impact.
"For animals bigger than one millimetre, there were eight really common groups and six disappeared completely," explained Professor Peck. "The removal of the other two species was over 99.5%.
"Animals smaller than one millimetre, like nematodes, went down from two million per square metre to a few hundred."
Rising from the ashes
For the first time, the scientists also tracked the recovery of the obliterated sites. It had been thought this would take years.
But the first arrivals re-colonised within a few days, simply by walking back in. The smaller creatures needed the assistance of a major storm to be swept back in. This occurred within four months, with a 150 km/h gale.
And this revealed a surprise - the berg impacts actually revitalise the sea floor communities in the same way that forest fires clear "dead wood" and allow new trees to flourish.
"The icebergs actually help to maintain the population with a larger number of young animals because it's clearing areas for settlement," says Professor Peck. "So the ice bergs do have positive effects as well."