Researchers from Durham University have discovered what appears to be a massive canyon system beneath Antarctica’s ice. Using satellite data, geologists have mapped out a system over 1,000 kilometers long (621 miles), with sections that run up to 1 kilometer deep (3,280 feet) in the Princess Elizabeth Land region on the eastern side of the continent. For comparison, the Grand Canyon is only about 446 kilometers (277 miles) long.
Another fascinating finding of this research: there also appears to be a massive, 1250 square kilometer (482 square mile) subglacial lake hidden in the area. The researchers believe that the canyon could have existed before the Antarctic ice sheet was formed, or that it may have been created by water flowing beneath the ice and eroding the rock.
So how did the geologists map this canyon system out when it’s hidden below a layer of ice and snow? That’s what makes this finding so interesting. First, they analyzed the shape of the surface ice for clues about the topography of the rock beneath. This method has been used elsewhere in Antarctica to obtain accurate readings before. Then, the team used radio-echo sounding in several regions to confirm their suspicions. In every area they tested, the data matched their analysis of the ice above.
Of course, we won’t know for sure how accurate their estimates are until the entire area is tested. That’s what the team is working on now, doing radio-echo sounding of the region by air. The findings of this follow up study will be available later this year. Their current research has been published in this month’s issue of the journal Geology.