London: Scientists have discovered mountain ranges and a series of vast canyons buried deep under the ice near the South Pole in western Antarctica. The discoveries, made with the help of ice-penetrating radar during an aerial survey of the polar region, came as a surprise to the scientists.
The biggest of the three canyons, named Foundation Trough, is more than 20 miles wide and spans a distance of more than 215 miles, or roughly the distance from Washington, D.C. to New York City. Patuxent Trough spans more than 180 miles while the Offset Rift Basin spans more than 90 miles.
The findings, published in the journal Geophysical Research Letters, are the first to emerge from extensive ice-penetrating radar data collected in Antarctica as part of the European Space Agency PolarGAP project.
Although there are extensive satellite data that help image the surface of the Earth and its deep interior, there was 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.
If the canyons are big, so are their possible environmental implications.
Global warming could cause the polar ice sheet to thin, and the size and orientation of the canyons could speed the rate at which ice flows from the center of the continent to the sea — a phenomenon that would raise global sea levels and possibly lead to the flooding of coastal areas around the world.
The team, led by researchers from Northumbria University in the UK, has mapped for the first time three vast, subglacial valleys in West Antarctica.
“Our new aero geophysical data will also enable new research into the geological processes that created the mountains and basins before the Antarctic ice sheet itself was born,” said the researcher.