The area under the ice in Antarctica is one of the last unexplored spots in the world, and it’s where a team of scientists from the UK, the Netherlands, Denmark, and Norway have just found three enormous canyons on radar. The project was funded in part by the European Space Agency (ESA) who wanted to take a look at this previously unseen territory. To do so, researchers used a technique in which they create a map of hidden terrain by shooting light beams from the air across a surface and measuring how long it takes for it to return. This provides invaluable information about the layers and depth of ice sheets as well as the shape of basement rock. They were especially interested in the area where east and west sheets come together. This has historically been called “the bottleneck.”
The largest canyon measures about 200 miles in length, 20 miles in width, and a mile in depth. Scientists have named this one Foundation Trough. The other two run 180 miles (Patuxent Trough) and 90 miles (Offset Rift Basin). They run through mountains that can’t be seen from the surface.
In their report recently published in a journal titled Geophysical Research Letters, scientists from Northumbria University in the UK say that the canyons serve to control the flow of ice. They channel it from the South Pole to the coast of West Antarctica where the Ross Sea is located and to the coast of East Antarctica where the Weddell Sea is located. As such, global warming could start a sort of domino effect. The ice shelves surrounding the ice sheets are already thinning. If the sheets follow suit as expected, ice in the troughs will flow to the sea much more quickly, further raising sea levels. It’s a danger of which no one was aware until now and that needs to be further examined. Scientists plan to do this through computer modeling.
The information gathered in this project is important not only for looking forward and determining what it might mean in light of global warming, but also for looking back at the evolution of Antarctica. BBC reports that scientists will use data collected to look at how the mountains and basins in the Antarctic were formed before the ice sheets existed. Among the possibilities they will consider is whether the recently discovered canyons were created during a previous glacial period when the ice configuration was much different than it is today.