Researchers have discovered three large canyons frozen beneath the ice of Antarctica, each of which is hundreds of kilometers in length. The canyons, which move through tall mountains that lie beneath the snowy surface of the southernmost continent, were discovered through radar and may serve a key function in Antarctic ice flow.
“These troughs channelize ice from the center of the continent, taking it toward the coast,” study co-author Kate Winter told the BBC. “Therefore, if climate conditions change in Antarctica, we might expect the ice in these troughs to flow a lot faster toward the sea. That makes them really important, and we simply didn’t know they existed before now.”
The three canyons are the Patuxent Trough, the Offset Rift Basin and the Foundation Trough, the largest of the three, which is more than 350 kilometers long and 35 kilometers wide. The bottom of the Foundation Trough is buried beneath two kilometers of ice. All three canyons are located beneath and across the high ice ridge known as the ice divide that runs from the South Pole toward West Australia. This divide is similar to other continental divides, such as those found in North America, in which water, or ice, flows toward different bodies of water based on which side of the divide it falls.
These newly-discovered canyons have altered scientists’ understanding of Antarctica’s future in a warming climate. “People had called this area a bottleneck,” study co-author Tom Jordan said. “The thought was that if the West Antarctic Ice Sheet were to collapse, then ice could flood out from the east. But the mountains we’ve found effectively put a plug in that bottleneck.” The data, much of which was unobtainable through satellite imagery, was gathered using radar and sensors attached to planes that surveyed the continent from above. “Remarkably, the South Pole region is one of the least understood frontiers in the whole of Antarctica,” researcher Fausto Ferraccioli said. “Our new aerogeophysical data will … enable new research into the geological processes that created the mountains and basins before the Antarctic ice sheet itself was born.”