A team of international scientists may have found the world’s largest canyon under the Antarctic Ice Sheet – a space potentially bigger than the entire UK and measured to be over 1,000km long and 1km deep in certain places – almost similar to the depths of the Grand Canyon of the USA but several times longer.
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In a research published in the journal Geology and titled “Antarctica: Explorers, Heroes, Scientists” the research team was composed of scientists from Newcastle University, Imperial College London and Durham University in the UK, University of Texas at Austin, USA, University of Western Australia, Australian Antarctic Division, University of Tasmania in Australia, and the Polar Research Institute of China.
The suspected canyon is many kilometers deep under the ice sheet and located in an area unexplored by scientists – Princess Elizabeth Land (PEL) in East Antarctica. Scientists have dubbed this place one of Antarctica’s “Poles of Ignorance.”
According to scientists, the underground canyon may have been produced by under-ice water current eroding the ancient landscape, or created by water that had been there before the ice sheet formed. It cannot be seen with the naked eye because it is deep under the ice sheets, but detected via satellite imagery and radio-echo sounding data – a process where radio waves are transmitted through ice to map the shape of rock under it.
The research was led by Dr. Stewart Jamie of the Department of Geography at Durham University in the UK. He provides that his team’s study offers the first proof that a huge canyon and perhaps a lake are under the ice sheet at PES.
“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,” Dr. Jamieson said. “If we can gain better knowledge of the buried landscape we will be better equipped to understand how the ice sheet responds to changes in climate.”
Dr. Neil Ross, a co-author of the study from the Newcastle University in the UK noted that the formation of the topography of the surface ice sheet may be a reflection of the landscape beneath the ice sheet, and that this subglacial canyon may have been there for ages without scientists knowing about it.
"Our identification of this landscape has only been possible through the recent acquisition, compilation and open availability of satellite data by many different organisations (e.g. NASA, ESA and the US National Snow and Ice Data Center), to whom we are very grateful, and because of some serendipitous reconnaissance radio-echo sounding data acquired over the canyons by the ICECAP project during past Antarctic field seasons,” said Dr. Ross.
And co-author Professor Martin Siegert of the Grantham Institute at the Imperial College London in the UK disclosed that the international collaboration for the subglacial canyon was carried out by UK, UK, Indian, Australian, and Chinese scientists, adding that “the stability of this understudied continent is threatened by global warming, so all the countries of the world now must rapidly reduce their greenhouse gas emissions and limit the damaging effects of climate change."