Three Massive Canyons Discovered In Antarctica

Posted: May 25 2018, 2:04pm CDT | by , Updated: May 25 2018, 2:15pm CDT, in News | Latest Science News

 
Three Massive Canyons Discovered in Antarctica
Credit: University of Northumbria at Newcastle

The discovery is the result of an analysis of airborne radar data collected during European Space Agency PolarGAP project

Three previously unknown canyons hidden beneath Antarctic ice have been discovered during the first modern aerogeophysical survey of the region.

The canyons stretch hundres of kilometers over south pole and cut through mountain ranges that divide the frozen region into two major parts. The discovery is the result of airborne radar data collected during European Space Agency PolarGAP project.

Although many satellites study the surface of the Earth and its deep interior, their orbits do not track over the poles, leading to significant gaps. Airborne radar data fill in the gap in the satellite coverage of the South Pole and map the bedrock topography located beneath the ice sheet. We already know that Antarctica's ice shelves are thinning. The newly discovered canyons could make ice sheet even more fragile and could increase the speed at which ice flows from Antarctica to the sea.

"As there were gaps in satellite data around the South Pole, no one knew exactly what was there, so we are delighted to be able to release the very first findings to emerge from the PolarGAP project,” said lead author Dr. Kate Winter from Northumbria University.

"We now understand that the mountainous region is preventing ice from East Antarctica flowing through West Antarctica to the coast. In addition we have also discovered three subglacial valleys in West Antarctica which could be important in the future. If the ice sheet thins or retreats, these topographically-controlled corridors could facilitate enhanced flow of ice further inland, and could lead to the West Antarctic ice divide moving. This would, in turn, increase the speed and rate at which ice flows out from the center of Antarctica to its edges, leading to an increase in global sea levels.”

The largest valley, named the Foundation Trough, is more than 350 kilometers long and 35 kilometers wide. Its length is equivalent to the distance from Los Angeles to Las Vegas. Two other canyons are also massive. The Patuxent Trough is more than 300 kilometers long and over 15 kilometers wide, while the Offset Rift Basin is 150 kilometers long and 30 kilometers wide.

The discovery provide unique new insights into geology and the evolution of the south polar region and how it may respond to the future changes.

"Understanding how the East and West Antarctic Ice Sheets interact is fundamental to our understanding of past, present and future global sea level,” said Dr. Neil Ross from Newcastle University. “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."

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