Scientists Have Found An Incredible Secret Below The Ice of Antarctica
The southernmost continent in the world, Antarctica, continues to be a source of fascination and mystery for people around the globe. Our knowledge of this frozen continent began on January 17, 1773, when famed explorer James Cook became the first to cross the Antarctic Circle which surrounds it. Cook is pictured in the painting below.
On January 27, 1820, a group of Russian explorers became the first to lay eyes on Antarctica. They sighted an ice shelf that bordered what is now known as Queen Maud's Land. While our understanding of the last discovered continent has progressed considerably since then, what do we really know about Antarctica?
The Lonely Continent
Due to its harsh climate and remote location, Antarctica is the loneliest and least visited of the seven major continents. Spanning across 5.5 million square miles, it is home to many penguins, seals, and whales but has no permanent human residents.
Nevertheless, Antarctica has remained a constant source of fascination ever since it was first discovered. Each year, small groups of researchers and tourists continue to visit the frozen landmass.
A Startling Discovery
Thousands of miles away in the Golden State of California, scientists have made a shocking discovery about Antarctica. This discovery is not about the surface of the continent but what lies many miles below the ice.
Given that Antarctica is nearly twice as large as Australia, it is no surprise that this has not been found until now. When one takes into account the increasing dangers of climate change, this discovery becomes even more unsettling.
A Mutual Effort
This scientific breakthrough came about as a result of a mutual effort between several institutions. In 2014, these collaborators utilized advanced technology and physics to map out the entire continent.
Five years after they created the map, these scientists made their findings public for the first time. While it was highly informative, it also made some chilling implications about the effects of climate change on Antarctica.
What Lies Beneath
For years, scientists have been able to peer below the surface of Antarctica using radar technology. By sending out pulses of microwave radiation, they have been able to systematically map out the terrain underneath the dense sheets of ice.
Unfortunately, this technology is not without its limitations. The depth of certain regions of Antarctica has made it impossible for the microwaves to determine what lies beneath with any accuracy. Instead of reaching the bottom, they are deflected by trenches, valleys, and other geological formations.
The Moment Of Truth
In December 2019, the moment of truth came at last for Antarctica and its mysterious underside. The team of international researchers, whose members are from all over the United States, Europe, Australia, and Asia, revealed the findings from their project.
Known as BedMachine Antarctica, its objective was to map the area beneath the surface as accurately as possible. In preparation, these researchers reviewed records from almost 50 years prior. The radar data compiled from these records cover nearly a million miles.
A Starting Point
While this data was certainly insufficient to complete the project, it provided a starting point for the researchers. With this as their foundation, they were able to begin assembling their comprehensive map of Antarctica. To fill in the gaps, the scientists turned to the principle of mass conservation.
This scientific law was discovered by Mikhail Lomonosov, who is pictured above. It states that if any closed system is never exposed to external forces, then it is constant. Essentially, since matter cannot be created or destroyed, it remains unchanged as long as there is no outside interference. The terrain beneath the ice would be an example of a closed system.
Filling In The Gaps
With the principle of mass conservation in mind, the scientists determined how much ice is beneath Antarctica. They accomplished this by establishing how ice moved across the continent.
Knowing the quantity and speed of ice entering its valleys, they began filling in the gaps. This helped supplement the sometimes limited data gathered by radar.
Pulling Back The Curtain
Not only did the scientists determine how much ice was in these valleys, but they also found out how far they went underground. By pulling back the curtain, the team could determine the structure and contours of the valley floor. Through their unrelenting and unceasing efforts, the most expansive map of Antarctica was created.
The results of their study appeared in Nature Geoscience, a scientific journal printed by Nature Research. On December 13, 2019, a day after the magazine was published, the results were presented at a meeting of the American Geophysical Union. The meeting was held in San Francisco, California, which is pictured above.
Queen Mary Land
The findings of the study are tied directly to Queen Mary Land, which is part of the Australian Antarctic Territory. It is located in East Antarctica near the Southern Ocean.
Also known as the Queen Mary Coast, it was discovered in 1912 by the Australian Antarctic Expedition. They named the entire region after Mary of Teck, who was Queen of the United Kingdom. She was the wife of King George V and grandmother of Queen Elizabeth II. Mary is depicted in the painting above.
The Denman Glacier
One of the most important landmarks in Queen Mary Land is the Denman Glacier. This enormous glacier spans roughly 12 miles and dominates the remote landscape.
As can be seen in the map above, there are several other notable glaciers in the area. These are the Reid Glacier, the Scott Glacier, the Northcliffe Glacier, and the Apple Glacier. However, the Denman Glacier has a secret that none of these other glaciers can claim.
The Canyon Below The Glacier
The researchers discovered a massive canyon below the Denman Glacier. This canyon extends about 11,500 feet below sea level. While the existence of such a canyon is impressive, its size is the most important aspect. It is currently the lowest natural point ever discovered on land.
By comparison, the Byrd Glacier only extends 9,121 feet below sea level. The Byrd Glacier is located nearly 1,400 miles away from the Denman Glacier in the Ross Dependency. The Ross Dependency is the region of Antarctica that is named after Sir James Clark Ross and is administered by New Zealand.
The Previous Lowest Point On Land
Before the Denman Glacier canyon was discovered, the lowest known point on land was in Asia. At the southern end of the Jordan Valley in Israel is the Dead Sea. This area where the river valley meets the Dead Sea is the lowest land on the entire continent.
However, it only extends 1,411 feet beneath sea level. The canyon below the Denman Glacier exceeds this by nearly eight times.
The Lowest Point On The Entire Planet
Interestingly, the lowest point on the entire planet is much deeper than even the Denman Glacier. In the depths of the Pacific Ocean, just east of the Mariana Islands is the Mariana Trench. At its absolute deepest point, the Mariana Trench is believed to reach 36,037 feet.
The depth of the Mariana Trench is certainly impressive. However, the Antarctic canyon discovered by these scientists is equally so given its location on land.
A Rewarding Accomplishment
While it was known there was something under the Denman Canyon, no one had been able to map it before. The skill and ingenuity of these researchers proved to be the essential piece for this rewarding accomplishment.
By overcoming the limitations of conventional radar technology, they made a groundbreaking discovery. While the depth of the valley was just part of what they found, it is certainly a notable aspect. Surprisingly, there are similarly deep valleys elsewhere in the world that are above sea level.
The Yarlung Tsangpo Grand Canyon
While it is above sea level, the Yarlung Tsangpo Grand Canyon is still notable for its depth. It is important to consider such places regarding the Denman Canyon valley. By doing so, one can truly appreciate just how deep the valley goes.
The Yarlung Tsangpo Grand Canyon runs along the Yarlung Tsangpo River in the Xizang Autonomous Region of southwestern China. At its deepest point, the canyon reaches nearly 20,000 feet.
Overcoming Insurmountable Challenges
What made it so challenging to map the canyon? Because of the multiple trenches running through the valley, the microwaves would simply bounce off them.
This made it practically impossible to determine where the actual bed of the glacier was. But this diverse and knowledgeable team of researchers succeeded in overcoming these seemingly insurmountable challenges.
A Place In History
The uncovering of the canyon below the glacier is an undeniable breakthrough. Of equal importance is how the canyon was found.
The innovation and determination of this international team of scientists have clearly paid off. Through their success with this project, they have certainly earned themselves a place in history.
A Greater Understanding Of The Effects Of Climate Change
A potential benefit of this project is a greater understanding of the effects of climate change. The terrain of this secret canyon can help scientists predict the future movement of glaciers.
As the Earth continues to warm up due to climate change, glaciers will begin to shift. Researchers believe that landscapes that slope inland will actually increase the speed at which these glaciers move. Because a canyon has been found beneath the Denman Glacier, scientists can anticipate how nearby ice will move in the future.
Powerful Forces Of Nature
However, there are other powerful forces of nature at play. While the valley may expedite the speed at which these glaciers move, it is not alone. Other geographical features can counter the movement of these glaciers. This would, in turn, counter the increase in sea levels.
This knowledge helps add a positive spin to the researchers' findings. While the canyon beneath the Denman Glacier could negatively impact the Earth in the future, its effects could ultimately be lessened or possibly even reversed.
The Transantarctic Mountains
An example of how nature counteracts this can be found in the Transantarctic Mountains. This mountain range separates the eastern and western halves of the frozen continent and spans over 2,000 miles.
Multiple glaciers have formed at these mountains, which then flow into the Ross Sea. However, their movement is hindered by a large sheet of floating ice. While there has been concern that the sheet may melt, it appears to be staying put. In doing so, it is preventing these glaciers from moving, which keeps sea levels steady.
A New Revelation
The BedMachine project has presented a new revelation that further alleviates these concerns. In the past, predictive models had determined that if the ice sheet were to melt, the speed at which glaciers move into the Ross Sea would increase.
Fortunately, the data from this recent project appears to indicate otherwise. By looking beneath the ice, researchers have found a high ridge that runs underneath.
Potential Affect On The Ross Sea Ice Shelf
With this knowledge, researchers can understand the vital role of this ridge. Even if the glaciers melt, the ridge can slow down or potentially prevent them from moving into the sea.
This could potentially have a major impact on the Ross Sea ice shelf. By slowing the drainage of the glaciers, the overall movement of the ice shelf would be affected. Likewise, the water levels of the Ross Sea would be impacted as well. Mathieu Morlighem, one of the researchers involved in the project, has shared his belief that the possible scenario of faster drainage could be a false alarm.
Some Good News...
While there is no immediate threat of the ice shelf collapsing, there is hope even if it does. Morlighem believes that even if the shelf were to melt or collapse, it would not seriously affect East Antarctica.
If something serious does ever happen to this particular region, it will not be because of the Ross Sea ice shelf. This is certainly good news, especially since it has been a concern for some time. Unfortunately, there is also some bad news.
...And Some Bad News
Across the icy continent of Antarctica is the Amundsen Sea. The Amundsen Sea is part of the vast Southern Ocean that surrounds the landmass. The Amundsen Sea was discovered in February 1920 by Captain Nils Larsen. Instead of naming it after himself, Larsen named it after Roald Amundsen, who is pictured below.
Like Larsen, Amundsen was a Norwegian explorer who traversed much of Antarctica. The bad news isn't about the Amundsen Sea itself, but what is rapidly flowing into it.
A Glacier The Size Of The United Kingdom
A massive glacier is continually flowing into the Amundsen Sea. It is uncertain as to how long this has been happening. This glacier is estimated to be about the size of the United Kingdom.
For comparison, a satellite image of the United Kingdom is shown above. The bad news is not about the glacier itself, but how it is moving. Specifically, how fast it is moving.
No Signs Of Slowing Down
This glacier has become one of the most rapidly moving shelves of ice in the region. Every year, the frozen mass moves over a mile. As the years go by, it is only propelled further and further along.
Unfortunately, this icy behemoth shows no signs of slowing down any time soon. Data gathered by the researchers suggests that the glacier may be moving even faster in the future. If this indeed is the case, it is unknown how fast it may move before it finally stops.
The Thwaites Glacier
This glacier is known as the Thwaites Glacier and was named after Fredrik T. Thwaites. Thwaites was a professor emeritus, geomorphologist, and glacial geologist at the University of Wisconsin in Madison. His father was Reuben Gold Thwaites, a prominent historian. In the 1970s, Terry Hughes became one of the first people to predict the collapse of the Thwaites Glacier.
Hughes, who was a professor emeritus at the University of Maine, conducted extensive climate and glaciological research throughout his long career. His prediction was proved accurate years later in a 2001 study. The study, which referenced radar data from satellites, determined that the glacier was out of balance and steadily moving.
The Doomsday Glacier
The Thwaites Glacier has also been referred to as the Doomsday Glacier. Because of the ongoing concern regarding its effect on sea levels, it is regularly watched.
Research from the previous decade indicates that the Thwaites Glacier's unsettling nickname is far from an exaggeration. A study conducted at the University of Washington in 2014 predicted that the glacier will melt until it finally collapses within the next 1,000 years.
New Information Comes To Light
However, new information about the Thwaites Glacier has come to light due to the recent research. It has been revealed that the glacier is situated on top of terrain which slopes inland. Unfortunately, this kind of terrain often increases the speed of a glacier's movements.
In this photograph, the Thwaites Glacier can be seen from an overhead perspective. The image was taken by Copernicus Sentinel-2, a satellite that was developed by the European Space Agency.
Is There Any Way To Stop It?
Not only is the Thwaites Glacier moving faster than other glaciers, but there may be no way to stop it. Unlike the Ross Sea ice shelf, the land below the Thwaites Glacier lacks any ridges. Is there any way to stop it?
There are only two ridges in the area that surrounds the glacier. Both are miles away from the glacier's present location. As soon as the glacier moves past these two ridges, it may truly be impossible to stop it. Like the study from the University of Washington predicted, the question appears to be not if the glacier collapses, but when.
Pine Island Glacier
Though the Thwaites Glacier is enormous and is of concern to scientists, it is not the quickest melting glacier in Antarctica. That unfortunate distinction belongs to the Pine Island Glacier.
While the Pine Island Glacier is very remote, it causes approximately 25 percent of the ice loss in Antarctica. In February 2020, a massive iceberg separated from the glacier. It has been estimated that this iceberg was about the size of Washington, DC.
Just Like Syrup
After examining all of this evidence, one obvious question comes to mind. How does this vast canyon beneath Antarctica affect the glaciers on its surface?
Dr. Emma Smith, a colleague of Mathieu Morlighem, has an answer. She compares the process to how a thick fluid moves across a surface. In other words, it's just like honey or maple syrup.
To picture this process, imagine a stack of pancakes and a bottle of maple syrup. What happens when you pour the syrup on the stack of pancakes?
The pancakes are relatively flat and smooth on the surface. Because of this, the syrup simply flows outward once it is poured on them. This can be seen in the image above.
Now imagine a stack of waffles and that same bottle of maple syrup. Unlike pancakes, waffles are not completely smooth and have many ridges and bumps.
Because of this, the syrup will spread out very differently on the waffles than it would on the pancakes. According to Dr. Smith, how the Antarctic ice behaves is very similar.
How It All Ties Together
If the ground under the glaciers is smooth and free of ridges and bumps, the glacier will move much more easily and therefore much faster. The same principles can be applied to the syrup moving across the pancakes.
On the other hand, if the ground beneath the glaciers is ridged, bumpy, and uneven, the ice will move differently and potentially at a much slower pace. This idea can be visualized with how the syrup moved across the waffles.
The Recovery Glacier
Aside from the Transantarctic Mountains and the Thwaites Glacier, the BedMachine project was also used to examine the Recovery Glacier. The Recovery Glacier is over 60 miles in length but is losing approximately 35 billion tons of water and ice each year.
The Recovery Glacier is part of a mountain range in northwestern Antarctica called the Shackleton Mountains. The range is named after Sir Ernest Shackleton, who led an expedition to Antarctica from 1914 to 1916.
Learning More About The Recovery Glacier
Because of the advancements made by the BedMachine project, researchers are learning more about the Recovery Glacier. Specifically, they now know more about the terrain underneath it. It seems that this glacier has a network of trenches running beneath it. Furthermore, these trenches appear to be hundreds of feet deeper than what researchers initially thought.
With a better understanding of what lies beneath Antarctica, experts may anticipate what will happen in the future. The speed and movement of glaciers are becoming easier to understand and predict than they have ever been.
What are the researchers' plans for moving forward? They now intend to augment their data with existing models of how Antarctica may respond to climate change.
It is hoped that this information will help scientists predict the effects of climate change on a global scale. As temperatures and sea levels continue to rise globally, it may not be long before this information proves to be essential.
The Key To Our Survival
Some researchers even believe that this information is the key to our survival in the face of climate change. Within the last two decades, it is believed that as many as three trillion tons of ice in Antarctica has disappeared.
If global temperatures continue to increase, this widespread loss may only continue. While it seems unlikely that these unsettling changes can be stopped, there are still some positive gains from this research. Using this information, researchers can formulate new ways to counter the effects of climate change.
Looking Beyond The Glaciers
The observations made about these glaciers are an important aspect of understanding climate change. In particular, the discovery of ridges and valleys beneath them helps researchers understand their movement.
However, the behavior of these icy masses is no anomaly. Looking beyond the glaciers, other changes are happening around the world. These changes are only compounded by global warming.
The Melting Of The Polar Ice Caps
Not surprisingly, experts have been aware of the impending danger of climate change for quite some time. Aside from the melting and movement of glaciers, another symptom of this global problem is the melting of the polar ice caps.
Outside of teams of scientists like this, major organizations like NASA are conducting their own research. One of their most recent innovations is a time-lapse which depicts the progressive melting of these ice caps. This detrimental process has been a complex matter for years, but NASA appears to have made it easier to understand.
The Ice Caps On Mars
While NASA has extensively studied the ice caps on Earth, they have also studied the ice caps on Mars. Whereas the ice caps on Earth are made mostly of water ice, those on Mars are partially composed of solid carbon dioxide.
Above is a composite image released by NASA. In the center of this image is the planet's northern polar region, in which a large ice cap is located.
As many are aware, there is nothing new about climate change. Beginning in the 1950s, global warming has increased at levels never before seen.
In 2013, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change made a shocking revelation. During the 21st century, the surface temperature of the Earth could climb as much as 8.6 degrees Fahrenheit. While most of the Earth's population has yet to experience any serious consequences of climate change, it may only be a matter of time.
Rising Sea Levels
In addition to the movement of glaciers and the melting of polar ice caps, there is another key indicator of climate change. This ties directly into the two previously mentioned, and it is rising sea levels.
Much like the Earth's surface temperature, it is believed that sea levels will rise dramatically this century. Within the next 100 years, global sea levels may increase as much as nine feet. The melting of ice sheets and ice caps in Antarctica continues to exacerbate this problem. Outside of Antarctica, this is also happening in Greenland. The Heimdal Glacier in southern Greenland is pictured above.
Deniers And Skeptics
Despite the growing evidence and research around climate change and its effects on the planet, many are still unconcerned. Ever since the earliest days of the environmental movement, there have been deniers and skeptics.
While some believe that climate change is real but not a serious threat, some do not believe it exists at all. In 2015, the Pew Research Center conducted a study, and only 54 percent of the people who participated in it considered climate change to be a major problem.
Something To Remember
While it is understandable that one may be discouraged by this information, there is something to remember. Governments and international organizations are becoming increasingly aware of climate change and its widespread effects.
The British Parliament declared a climate emergency in 2019, becoming the first national government to do so. That same year, the parliament of the European Union followed suit with a climate and environmental emergency.
Spreading The Word
Politicians and diplomats from multiple countries have also called others to take action. From entire nations to major businesses, these men and women are spreading the word wherever they can. In March 2019, a group of politicians spoke at the United Nations Environment Assembly. This assembly is part of the larger UN Environment Programme.
At the assembly, these politicians urged for worldwide efforts to combat these environmental changes. Their message was strengthened by the fact that they were all environment ministers from different countries. Each of their countries is located in the Arctic region, such as Norway and Finland. This further added to their credibility when speaking about the issue.
The European Union and various national governments are doing more than just recognizing the problem. They are taking action. The EU has created the European Green Deal, which aims to make all 27 member states carbon-neutral by 2050.
Outside of Europe, other countries are making similar goals. Both Japan and South Korea also intend to be carbon-neutral by 2050. China plans to have done the same by 2060.
While there is a lot to unpack from this information, several things are immediately clear. For one thing, a diverse group of scientists has made a major technological breakthrough. This will impact how scientists study glaciers and other bodies of ice for years to come. They have also gleaned some valuable insights about the movement of these glaciers. This can help them predict their behavior.
Lastly, they have been able to use those insights to achieve a greater understanding of the Antarctic and how it impacts the rest of the world. Aside from their research, NASA and other major organizations are making important breakthroughs about climate change and its global impact. In political circles, representatives from multiple governments are taking action to inform others and do what needs to be done to counter these effects. Hopefully, everyone around the world will benefit from this knowledge and do their part to make the Earth a greener and safer place for many centuries to come.