While Antarctica may be the least understood continent on Earth, things are changing now that satellite data has revealed ancient and lost continents lurking deep beneath this icy landmass.
Because of the great remoteness of Antarctica and the large amount of ice that covers this continent, scientists have had a difficult time charting its many unique geological features. But as Science Alert report, this is not a problem for the Gravity Field and Steady-State Open Circulation Explorer satellite (GOCE), which can extrapolate what other satellites are unable to by simply analyzing the immense pull of the gravity of Earth. By doing this, the GOCE satellite is able to discover hidden terrain hiding under Antarctica, enabling it to be mapped.
Despite the fact that the GOCE satellite eventually ran out of fuel back in 2013, scientists are still able to study the vast amount of data that it collected while it was still operational. Researchers note that this data has been enormously helpful with providing clues as to how the continent of Antarctica was first formed.
Fausto Ferraccioli, who is part of the British Antarctic Survey, explained, “In East Antarctica we see an exciting mosaic of geological features that reveal fundamental similarities and differences between the crust beneath Antarctica and other continents it was joined to until 160 million years ago.”
With Antarctica once belonging to the massive supercontinent known as Gondwana, this supercontinent began to slowly disappear over 130 million years ago. But after studying seismological data with readings from the GOCE satellite, scientists were able to construct extremely detailed maps in 3D of the Earth’s lithosphere. Included in this map were ocean backs, gigantic mountain ranges, and cratons, which are the remains of continents that have firmly planted themselves into other continents, like Antarctica.
As Jörg Ebbing from Kiel University in Germany noted, this 3D mapping is crucial if scientists are to fully understand the nature of plate tectonics and their interaction with the Earth’s molten mantle.
“The satellite gravity data can be combined with seismological data to produce more consistent images of the crust and upper mantle in 3D, which is crucial to understand how plate tectonics and deep mantle dynamics interact.”
One of the most exciting discoveries that came out of the new study was that there is a lithosphere and thinner crust beneath West Antarctica, yet East Antarctica had many older cratons still attached to it.
The new study on the hidden remains of continents that were detected beneath Antarctica has been published in Scientific Reports.