TechOctopus DNA signals dire warning: imminent collapse of Western Antarctic ice sheet

Octopus DNA signals dire warning: imminent collapse of Western Antarctic ice sheet

Antarctica may collapse into the sea
Antarctica may collapse into the sea
Images source: © Adobe Stock | Joanna Perchaluk

1:41 PM EST, December 23, 2023

The genetic investigation of a specific octopus species has led scientists to this worrying prediction for Antarctica. Looking for hints about the evolution of the continent's ice sheet, a team led by genetic biologist, Sally Lau, suggests that the Antarctic ice sheet may collapse soon.

Octopuses as historians of Antarctica

The Turquet octopus species have resided in the Antarctic region for approximately 4 million years, thus, bearing witness to significant changes in the environment. Genetic evidence indicates that they initially bred independently but managed to interbreed with smaller octopus species for thousands of years. However, this "genetic window" eventually closed, leaving the smaller octopuses to rely solely on themselves.

In response, evolutionary biologists decided to infer Antarctica's history from the octopuses' genetic history. By examining 96 DNA samples collected from Turquet octopuses over the last three decades, they found proof of ancient water paths crossing Western Antarctica. This discovery suggests that these octopuses experienced this water path phenomenon twice.

The Western Antarctic ice sheet's historical retreat

Evidence suggests that the ice sheet first retreated during the middle Pliocene epoch, approximately 3–3.5 million years ago. The waterways are believed to have been available once again during the last interglacial period, from 129 to 116 thousand years ago. However, these historical references are not insignificant for the present.

The study implies that the Western Antarctic ice surface collapsed when the global average temperature was similar to current readings. Consequently, it's plausible to suspect the critical point may be near, with the possibility of the Western Antarctic ice sheet collapsing once more.

The global implications of Antarctic glaciers

The potential consequences could be disastrous. Massive amounts of freshwater could be released into our global oceans, increasing their levels by roughly 10.8–16.4 feet. This change could drastically modify our current land maps, though, it's uncertain if we should start investing in houseboats just yet.

While the octopus-based research findings paint a bleak picture, it's crucial to note that they do not conclude that temperature was the sole factor leading to the collapse of the Western Antarctic ice sheet. Furthermore, it's not clear whether this was a rapid, catastrophic event or a gradual process unfolding over an extended period.

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