According to a new study, an ancient mountain range with an enormous valley deeper than the famed Grand Canyon lies buried under the Antarctic ice.
The two-mile deep valley is reported to be about 15 miles wide and 200 miles long.
The discovery of the huge canyon between the surrounding mountains was “incredibly serendipitous,” said Dr. Neil Ross, a geology professor at Newcastle University and the lead author of the study.
He and a group of scientists from the British Antarctic Survey, the University of Bristol’s Glaciology Centre and Edinburgh, Exeter and York Universities took three seasons to map the ancient mountain range, which is called the Ellsworth Sub-Glacial Highlands.
To do the mapping, they took data that they collected by using ice-penetrating radar – carried on small planes or pulled behind snowmobiles – and combined it with data gathered by satellites.
Ross says that they had already collected data from the ends of the huge valley, but they didn’t know what lay in between. To fill in the gaps, they used satellite data, because, rather surprisingly, the valley is so large it can be seen from space, despite the fact that it is buried deep under the Antarctic ice.
The ancient mountain range and valley were formed about 80 million years ago when Antarctica separated from the rest of the Earth’s landmass, causing rifts and chasms to be formed. When this detached body of land arrived at the South Pole, with its lower temperatures, glaciers formed, further shaping the continent’s terrain by carving out deep trenches and fissures.
Because this study is the first one in which scientists have been able to closely examine the area under the vast ice sheet, it is giving researchers new insight into to how the West Antarctic Ice Sheet behaved in the distant past, as well as its size, thickness and configuration. The mountainous landscape below demonstrates where and how the ice sheet developed and grew, as well as providing clues about its size and shape in a warmer climate.
Summing up the awe-inspiring findings from the study, Ross says that, to him, it really just shows how little we still know about our own planet. It is still possible, he notes, to explore previously hidden and unknown places and make exciting new discoveries.
The Antarctic study isn’t the first time that scientists have located a hidden canyon beneath the ice. Last year a group of researchers announced the find of a 460-mile wide canyon under the Greenland ice sheet. David Vaughan, of British Antarctic Survey, said of this discovery that, “[a] discovery of this nature shows that the Earth has not yet given up all its secrets. Vaughn added that, while the discovery of the giant canyon was a “breathtaking find in itself,” this type of research is important in helping scientists understand Greenland’s past. The ice sheet in this area contributes to sea-level rise, he noted, and this work helps researchers put the current changes in context.
The most recent study appears in the latest issue of the Geological Society of America Bulletin.
By Nancy Schimelpfening