Researchers have discovered mountain ranges and three huge, deep subglacial valleys hidden beneath the Antarctica ice.
The findings are the first from the extensive ice-penetrating radar data collected in Antarctica, as a part of the European Space Agency PolarGAP project. They were published in the journal Geophysical Research Letters.
Though there is extensive satellite data to help image the surface of the Earth and its deep interior, there is a gap around the South Pole area, which is not covered by satellites due to the inclination of their orbits.
The PolarGAP project was therefore designed to fill in the gap in the satellite data coverage of the South Pole and in particular acquire the missing gravity data.
In addition to this, airborne radar data was collected to enable mapping of the bedrock topography hidden beneath the ice sheet.
• The data reveals the topography, which controls how quickly ice flows between the East and West Antarctic ice sheets.
• The team, led by researchers from Northumbria University in the UK, mapped the three vast, subglacial valleys in West Antarctica for the first-ever time.
• The discovery could be significant, as the valleys help to channel the flow of ice from the centre of the continent towards the coast.
• In case, climate change causes the ice sheet to thin, the valleys could increase the speed at which ice flows from the centre of Antarctica to the sea, raising global sea levels.
About the Discovery
The largest valley, known as the Foundation Trough, is more than 350 km long and 35 km wide.
The other two valleys are equally vast. While the Patuxent valley is more than 300 km long and over 15 km wide, the Offset Rift Basin is 150 km long and 30 km wide.
With the discovery, the researchers understood that the newly-discovered mountainous region was what that was preventing ice from East Antarctica flowing through West Antarctica to the coast.
The finding also helped the researchers understand how the East Antarctic Ice Sheet may have responded to past climate change and how it may do so in the future.
The new data will also enable new research into the geological processes that created the mountains and basins before the Antarctic ice sheet itself was born.
• It is an ambitious international mission to capture new and critical data about the Earth’s global gravity field.
• The project is largely funded by the European Space Agency (ESA).
• It aims to gather measurements over an area of Earth, which is not covered by satellites, as they generally only fly up to about 83 degrees in latitude.
• The main objective of PolarGAP is to collect gravity data at the North and South poles, regions that were missed by the satellite GOCE due to orbit constraints, which can then be used to help complete a global model of the Earth’s gravitational field.
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Where: Under Antarctica