Colonizing far and distant worlds is seen as the frontier of scientific discovery, yet recent findings in Antarctica illustrate how little we still understand about our own world. Hiding underneath a mile of ice, a team of researchers at New Castle University discovered a “mega canyon” buried beneath the confines of West Antarctica.
The canyon stretches 200 miles in length, approximately 25 miles wide, and ranges a depth up to two miles in some places—making certain regions of the canyon twice as large as the Grand Canyon. The collective work of the researchers spanned three seasons. The scientists originally spent their time mapping a mountain range lying beneath stacked layers of ice in West Antarctica. By mapping an ancient sub-glacial trough and utilizing radar and satellite imagery, an Antarctica “mega canyon” was discovered. In addition, the team of researchers also mapped an ancient mountain range dubbed the Ellsworth Subglacial Highlands. The mountain range and valley were the corollary of a miniscule ice field similar to the Antarctica Peninsula, Arctic Canada and Alaska.
Scientists believe the canyon was gradually chiseled by the flow of time for millions of years. Approximately 80 million years ago, Antarctica was part of a much larger continent. The continent “split,” migrated south and formed a vast chasm along the way. Although scientists have a competent grasp regarding the development and degradation of the West Antarctic ice sheet, they were at a lose regarding the exact origins of the ancient ice sheet, until now. The discovery of the canyon revealed the seed of the West Antarctic ice sheet. By researching the morphology of the landscape with the use of satellite imagery, such as the u-shape valleys and cirques, scientists believe the canyon may have been shaped by a miniscule ice sheet equivalent to those found in the Canadian and Russian High Arctic. In short: the region unraveled is where the ice sheet of West Antarctica blossomed.
The radar data provided scientists with the tools necessary to discovery the massive canyon. However, the radar data was insufficient to determine what exactly was lying within the valley. The satellite data provided a third-eye when the radar data proved short-sited. The satellite was able to peer past several kilometers of ice. Looking past the stacked layers of ice revealed a canyon further than the eye can see. In fact, with satellite imagery, the canyon is so large that it can be seen from space.
The discovery of the Antarctic “mega canyon” leaves scientists with plenty of work to do. By examining the precise depth, thickness, and dynamics of the ancient ice field, scientists are peering into a window that paints a scene of where and how the West Antarctic ice sheet first burgeoned. It will also provide insights into the precise proportions and guise of the West Antarctic ice sheet that occupies warmer terrains. The discovery highlights how little we know about our own world and more importantly, how much more there is to discovery right here at home. The researchers’ insights were published in the Geological Society of America Bulletin.
By Nathan Cranford