THE ROSS ICE SHELF? It sounds like part of a refigerator. But, in fact, it is mass of ice nearly the size of Texas and about 1,400 feet thick that has lain over the Transantarctic fjord near the South Pole for eons. Its forbidding majesty islaotes the inlet's frigid waters from ocean currents and from any light as well. Last week a National Science Foundation expedition succeeded in piercing through the giant glacier to the lightless waters beneath. Using a specially designed, heated torch, the scientists burned a 1-foot-diameter hole through the ice in 12 hours. Already they have lowered through the hole special cameras and videotape monitors, to peer at the never-before-seen deep-sea envoirnment.
National Science Foundation officials say not even the deep-sea trenches offer such possibilities for exploring the unknown. One question the scientists hope to answer is what kind of organisms can survive in sea water whose temperature is nearly at the freezing point. So far only a few curstaceans and other signs of life in the form of tracks, trials and burrows have been sighted. In addition, the scientists hope to pinpoint the shelf'age and study the sea-bottom sediment.
Antarctica has become the focus of greater attention in recent years because of its reputed rich mineral deposits and the abundance of protein-rich krill in the seas srrrounding it. It isn't likely the NSF sceintists will make any sea-shaking discoveries, 1,400 feet below the glacier's surface, or that their discoveries will directly affect the international jockeying to exploit Antarctica's resources. Their efforts will, however, contribute to our knowldege of this frigid, but increasingly important, part of the earth.