Giant gorge discovered under Antarctic ice

Radar data reveals huge canyon at Ellsworth Range

Under this ice near the Ellsworth Mountains lies the huge subglacial gorge © Newcastle University
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Hidden beneath the ice of the Antarctic, researchers have discovered a gigantic gorge: At more than three kilometers deep and 300 kilometers long, it even outshines the Grand Canyon. This gorge, which runs along the Ellsworth Mountains, was created when a primeval glacier scrapped the ground, as British researchers explain. The discovery shows what surprises our planet still holds today.

Last summer, news from the other side of the world caused quite a stir: in August 2013, researchers discovered a giant canyon under the ice sheet of Greenland. The mighty canyon extends from south to north and is approximately 750 kilometers long and varies in width and depth between 800 meters and 10 kilometers. The hidden canyon was first discovered by the so-called Ice Penetrating Radar (IPR), a technique that penetrates the ice and shows the topography of the underlying landscape.

Three kilometers deep, 25 kilometers wide

Researchers around Neil Ross from Newcastle University have now been using this technique to look under the ice - not in Greenland, but in the Antarctic. They mapped the topography in the area of ​​the subglacial Ellsworth Highlands, a mountain range covered by several kilometers of ice in the West Antarctic. They used both radar data from satellites as well as flights with airplanes and radar trailers of snowmobiles.

The evaluations showed amazing: Along the mountain runs a huge valley, more than three kilometers deep, 25 kilometers wide and over 300 kilometers long. The bottom is in some areas more than 2, 000 meters below sea level, as the researchers report. This gorge is deeper than the Grand Canyon.

The Ellsworth Mountains from space - here is the highest mountain in the Antarctic, Mount Vinson. From most of the peaks, however, only a piece of the kilometer thick EI protrudes. © NASA

"The discovery of this huge trough was an unbelievable case of luck, " explains study leader Ross. Because initially there was only radar data from both ends of this huge hidden valley. No one suspected what was in between. Only when satellite data was consulted, the Giant Gorge showed. "It's so big that it's clearly visible from space, " says Ross. display

Notched before the big icing

The huge valley was created millions of years ago, before the Antarctic was permanently covered by its current, thick ice sheet. At that time, a rather small ice field moved over the ground and dug this deep notch into the rock, as the researchers explain. Numerous other gorges and valleys along the Ellsworth Mountains are evidence of the formative power of these prehistoric glaciers. They are similar in many ways to the landscape forms that are still found today in the Alps and other high mountains, according to Ross and his colleagues.

"This find demonstrates how little we still know about the surface of our home planet, " notes Ross. "The discovery and exploration of hidden, previously unknown landscapes is still possible and incredibly exciting - even today." (Geological Society of America Bulletin, 2014; doi: 10.1130 / B30794.1)

(Newcastle University., 15.01.2014 - NPO)