A massive ancient trough – deeper than the Grand Canyon - has been discovered under the Antarctic icecap by a team of experts which included North-East scientists.
The research involved scientists from Newcastle University, the British Antarctic Survey and the universities of Bristol, Edinburgh, Exeter, and York.
They charted the Ellsworth Subglacial Highlands – an ancient mountain range buried beneath several kilometres of Antarctic ice - by combining data from satellites and ice-penetrating radars towed behind skidoos and on-board small aircraft.
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The researchers uncovered a massive subglacial valley up to 3 km deep, more than 300 km long and up to 25 km across.
In places, the floor of this valley is more than 2000 metres below sea level.
The mountain range and deep valley were carved millions of years ago by a small icefield similar to those of the present-day Antarctic Peninsula, or those of Arctic Canada and Alaska.
The team’s analysis has provided an unprecedented insight into the extent of the ancient icefield.
The subglacial landscape shows where and how the West Antarctic Ice Sheet originated and grew. It also provides important clues about the size and shape of the ice sheet in West Antarctica in a warmer global climate.
The findings are published in the latest edition of the Geological Society of America Bulletin.
The paper’s lead author Dr Neil Ross from Newcastle University said: “The discovery of this huge trough, and the characterisation of the surrounding mountainous landscape, was incredibly serendipitous.”
The lecturer in physical geography said: “Despite being covered beneath several kilometres of ice, the valley is so vast that it can be seen from space.
“This just goes to demonstrate how little we still know about the surface of our own planet.”