Originally created 01/31/98

Undersea drilling finds shellfish, algae flourished in past

WELLINGTON, New Zealand -- More than two dozen kinds of shellfish fossils and 15 previously unknown species of algae have been found under the seabed off Antarctica, a scientist said Friday.

The discovery of the shells indicates the Ross Sea off Antarctica was 6 to 7 degrees warmer about 1.2 million to 1.8 million years ago, geology professor Peter Barrett told The Associated Press.

Barrett, from Victoria University in Wellington, is the coordinator of a six-nation project drilling the Antarctic coastal seabed off Cape Roberts to study past climatic change.

The scientists believe the rock cores from 1,500 feet below the sea bed could unlock the history of the Antarctic's climate and offer clues to global warming.

They also believe that studying earlier Antarctic warm spells may help them predict what global warming may do to the world's ice and sea levels.

"It's been a controversy over whether periods in the Pleistocene and Pliocene were warmer than the present," said Bill Budd of the Antarctic Cooperative Research Center at the University of Tasmania. Budd studies glacial and coastal ice changes for clues to more recent climate changes.

The Pleistocene and Pliocene epochs, taken together, ran from about 5.3 million years ago to about 10,000 years ago.

Barrett said the shells and algal seaweed beds were both major finds.

"In a glacial environment, shells hardly ever form, and there's an enormous variety, something like 32 different types of mollusks alone" in the one-yard-thick bed, he said.

He said the layer also contained barnacles, corals and other shellfish life forms and indicated "a super-warm period" between ice ages and "indicates a rather different environment in the Ross Sea than we are used to thinking of."

"We also found entirely new micro-flora (algal seaweed) existed in the area 15 to 22 million years ago, and have identified 15 new species, not just for the Antarctic, but to the globe," he said.

Wellington paleontologist Roger Cooper said the find has "exciting implications" for the study of Antarctic climate and the "controversial international debate" of whether Antarctica has been covered in an ice sheet throughout history.

"This new evidence should help resolve the debate and take us further forward in our understanding of Antarctic climate, and therefore its effects on global climate," said Cooper, a research program leader at the Institute of Geological and Nuclear Sciences, who was not part of the ice coring project.

He said if the shells were those of temperate and warm water mollusks that would favor the theory that the Antarctic ice sheet disappeared during a past period of global warming.

New Zealand is leading the consortium of 42 scientists from the United States, Italy, Britain, Germany, Australia and New Zealand.

Barrett travels to Washington for a meeting of the group next week, hoping to find an extra $1 million from the U.S. National Science Foundation to extend their work.


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