Radar Reveals Hidden Canyons Deep Below Ice In Antarctica

Radar Reveals Hidden Canyons Deep Below Ice In Antarctica

Dr Kate Winter from Northumbria University, UK, and colleagues found the hidden features with radar.

To put that on a more recognisable scale - think about a deeply incised valley running in between London and Manchester.

The area under the ice in Antarctica is one of the last unexplored spots in the world, and it's where a team of scientists from the United Kingdom, the Netherlands, Denmark, and Norway have just found three enormous canyons on radar.

The three enormous canyons also bridge the so-called "ice divide" - the high ice ridge that runs from the South Pole towards the coast of West Antarctica.

The two other troughs are similarly large.

The Patuxent Trough measures over nine miles (15 km) wide and runs for some 185 miles (300 km), while the Offset Rift basin is 18 miles (30 km) wide and runs 93 miles (150 km) beneath the ice shelf. And all of this relief is buried under numerous metres of ice.

To obtain to the flooring of Structure Trough, for instance, you would have to drill through over 2km of ice cover. However, this would increase the rate and speed at which ice moves and could divide the two major ice sheets.

Essentially, these canyons can act as a brake on any ice which might attempt to flow from the east of the continent, kind of like a bottleneck, with the surrounding mountains acting like a plug.

While that area, found in the Trans-Antarctic Mountains, was thought to be far too steep to go undisturbed for such a long time, signs pointing to the contrary slowly began to build up.

According to the researchers' observations, the newly-discovered troughs control the speed of ice flow between the East and West Antarctic ice sheets. The discovery is the result of airborne radar data collected during European Space Agency PolarGAP project.

Dr Winter adds: "The data we have gathered will enable ice sheet modellers to predict what will happen if the ice sheet thins, which will mean we can start to answer the questions we couldn't answer before". This provides invaluable information about the layers and depth of ice sheets as well as the shape of basement rock. These new PolarGAP data give us both insights into how the landscape beneath the ice influences present ice flow, and a better understanding of how the parts of the great Antarctic ice sheets near to South Pole can, and cannot, evolve in response to glaciological change around their margins.

It is possible the troughs spotted under today's ice sheet were removed throughout a previous glacial period when the ice over the continent was set up in an extremely various method.

Using this technique - and computer modelling to simulate glacier flow in the area - the team says they've pinpointed the probable location of where million-year-old ice could be lurking under the Allan Hills, some 5 kilometres (3 miles) away from where the 2.7 million-year-old ice fragment was discovered.

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