Antarctica's icebergs have a major impact on the ecology of the ocean around them, serving as 'hotspots' for ocean life, according to a new study by American researchers.
The icebergs hold trapped terrestrial material, which they release far out at sea as they melt. This process produces a "halo effect" with significantly increased nutrients, chlorophyll and krill out to a radius of more than three kilometres, scientists said.
The researchers estimate that, overall, the icebergs are raising the biological productivity of nearly 40 percent of Antarctica's Weddell Sea.
Based on their new understanding of the role of icebergs in the ecosystem and the sheer number of icebergs in the Southern Ocean--the team counted more than 11,000 in satellite images of some 4,300 square miles of ocean.
The scientists further believe the icebergs may also play a surprising role in global climate regulation by removing carbon from the atmosphere.
As such, the new research may open a new and productive field for ecosystem research at the dawn of the Polar Year, they said.
"This research establishes yet another promising horizon for polar ecology," said Roberta Marinelli, organisms and ecosystems program director for the US Antarctic Program.
"And as we progress through the International Polar Year, NSF hopes to expand this work to learn yet more about these unique ecological niches and their significance to oceanic processes," she said.
The research is funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF) and conducted by scientists from the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute, the San Diego Supercomputer Center, Scripps Institution of Oceanography, the University of San Diego and the University of South Carolina.
The findings appear in this week's issue of the journal Science.