The new canyon system is estimated to be 1,000km long, making it many times longer than Grand Canyon in the United States.
The world’s largest ever chasm may be hiding underneath the Antarctic ice sheet, according to a new study.
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After analyzing satellite data, a team of researchers led by Durham University suspected that the Antarctic ice sheet may contain the largest canyon that has ever been known.
This previously unknown canyon system is buried inside Princess Elizabeth Land (PEL) in East Antarctica which is one of the last unexplored regions on the surface of the Earth. Researchers suggest that the system is up to 1,000km long and around 1km deep in some places, making it comparable to the USA’s Grand Canyon in terms of depth but unmatchable as far as length is considered.
However, researchers are doubtful about dubbing it the world’s largest canyon yet since very limited data has been available about ice thickness of this particular area of the Antarctic region and direct measurements are required to confirm the discovery.
"This is a region of the Earth that is bigger than the UK and yet we still know little about what lies beneath the ice. In fact, the bed of Antarctica is less well known than the surface of Mars,” said lead author Dr Stewart Jamieson from Durham University.
“Our analysis provides the first evidence that a huge canyon and a possible lake are present beneath the ice in Princess Elizabeth Land. It's astonishing to think that such large features could have avoided detection for so long.”
The new canyon network is not visible to the naked eye since the landscape is buried inside the ice sheet.
Researchers have observed faint traces of this twisting and linear complex canyon chain using satellite images and radio-echo sounding data. The echo-sounding technology sends radio waves through the ice to map the shape of the rock beneath it.
The data suggests that the canyon is stretching across the interior of Princess Elizabeth Land to the coast around the Vestfold Hills and the West Ice Shelf. It also appears connected to a previously undiscovered subglacial lake which likely covers up an area of 1250km², more than 80 times as big as Lake Windermere in the England.
“Antarctic scientists have long recognized that because the way ice flows, the landscape beneath the ice sheet was subtly reflected in the topography of the ice sheet surface. Despite this, these vast deep canyons and potential large lake had been overlooked entirely.” Co-author Dr Neil Ross from Newcastle University said.
“Our identification of this landscape has only been possible through the recent acquisition, compilation and open availability of satellite data by many different organizations (e.g. NASA, ESA and the US National Snow and Ice Data Center).”
An airborne survey is currently underway with the aim of confirming the existence and size of the canyon and results are expected to release later in 2016.
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Professor Martin Siegert, one of the authors of the study said. “Discovering a gigantic new chasm that dwarfs the Grand Canyon is a tantalizing prospect. Geologists on Antarctica are carrying out experiments to confirm what we think we are seeing from the initial data.”