26 July 2012
The British Antarctic Survey has announced the discovery of a mile-deep rift valley under the ice of West Antarctica.
The snow-filled basin was found under the Ferrigno Ice Stream — a region that has only been visited once previously, leading the BAS to describe it as “remote even by Antarctic standards.”
However, this region is losing ice faster than any other part of Antarctica, with some glaciers receding by more than a metre a year. It’s thought that the shape of the basin and the warming sea could be contributing to the rapid melting of this part of the continent.
To find out more, a team of researchers dragged an ice-penetrating radar behind a skidoo across more than 2,400km of the vast continent, greater than the distance between London and Athens.
“What we found is that lying beneath the ice there is a large valley, parts of which are approximately a mile deeper than the surrounding landscape,” said Robert Bingham, a glaciologist working in the University of Aberdeen’s School of Geosciences and lead author of a study reported in Nature, in a press release. “If you stripped away all of the ice here today, you’d see a feature every bit as dramatic as the huge rift valleys you see in Africa and in size as significant as the Grand Canyon.”
He added, “This is at odds with the flat ice surface that we were driving across — without these measurements we would never have known that it was there. What’s particularly important is that this spectacular valley aligns perfectly with the recordings of ice-surface lowering and ice loss that we have witnessed with satellite observations over this area for the last twenty years.”
The work was funded by the UK’s Natural Environment Research Council and is part of the British Antarctic Survey’s Icesheets Programme, which examines the role of ice sheets in the Earth system, and the processes that control ice-sheet change.