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World's Largest Canyon Hides Beneath Antarctic Ice Sheet

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New satellite data analysis indicates that a massive natural sight may be hiding beneath the Antarctic ice sheet – something potentially bigger than the Grand Canyon.

A team of researchers from Durham University and Imperial College London – along with American, Australian, Indian, and Chinese scientists – detected a previously undiscovered canyon system that is believed to be more than 1,000 kilometers (621 miles) long and as deep as 1 kilometer (0.62 miles) in certain places, rivaling the depth of the Grand Canyon but exceeding its length.

The new discovery published in the journal Geology, however, still needs to be confirmed through direct measurements.

Natural Gem Under Icy Wilderness

The canyon system is speculated to be buried underneath Princess Elizabeth Land (PEL) in East Antarctica, one of the last unexplored land surfaces on Earth. It is composed of a combination of linear and winding features under kilometers of ice.

The massive features appear to span from PEL’s interior to the coast surrounding the Vestfold Hills and the West Ice Shelf.

This part of the Antarctic – which is officially an Australian territory, but shelters Russian base Vostok Station – has been barely measured for ice thickness, prompting scientists to call it as one of the two “Poles of Ignorance” in the region.

According to lead researcher Dr. Stewart Jamieson of Durham’s geography department, their analysis is the first proof that a huge canyon – and possibly a lake – are lurking undiscovered beneath PEL’s ice.

It is theorized that the canyons were linked to a previously unknown sub-glacial lake, with the surface of ice above the lake resembling qualities with those of previously known large subglacial lakes. According to the data, the lake could cover up to 1,250 square kilometers (482.63 square miles).

“It's astonishing to think that such large features could have avoided detection for so long,” he said.

Jamieson added that this part of the planet is bigger than the United Kingdom and yet remains largely unresearched.

“[T]he bed of Antarctica is less well known than the surface of Mars,” he said, highlighting the importance of studying the buried landscape in order to better gauge the response of the ice sheet to climate change.

Origins, Satellite Detection Of The Canyon

What could have likely formed this hidden landscape beneath ice?

The scientists pointed to water, and thought that the canyon must either be so long-existing that it was already present before the growth of the ice sheet, or was formed through erosion brought on by the flow of water beneath the thick ice layer.

The subglacial wonder, while invisible to the naked eye, can be faintly seen on the surface of the ice sheet, based on satellite imagery. Small segments were also observed via radio-echo sounding data, where radio waves sent through the ice map the rock’s outline beneath the sheet.

To confirm the size and existence of the canyon and lake, researchers are now conducting an airborne survey taking targeted radio-echo sounding measurements over the suspected hidden landscape. The results are expected later this year.

Antarctica And Climate Change

"Discovering a gigantic new chasm that dwarfs the Grand Canyon is a tantalizing prospect,” said co-author and professor, Martin Siegert, adding that Antarctic geoscientists are also testing their initial data.

Siegert warned, however, that Antarctica itself is facing instability threats from global warning. He called on all countries to rapidly decrease their greenhouse gas emissions and help limit the damage brought by climate change.

Apparently, though, nature has its way of bouncing back.

A different study found that giant icebergs breaking off from Antarctic ice sheets – once assumed to be another global warming sign – may actually help keep climate change at bay as they melt.

In a process revealed by satellite imagery and known as “ocean fertilization,” the icebergs as large as Singapore can unleash nutrients into the ocean as they float and melt. This incites massive plankton blooms that can take in significant amounts of carbon in the Southern Ocean’s carbon cycle.

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