When Scientists Scanned Below The Antarctic Ice, They Found A Secret That Could Change Our Future
By Suzi Marsh
February 24, 2020 | In a laboratory in southern California, a researcher is poring over data collected from deep beneath Antarctica. And the measurements reveal a startling insight into what secrets lie far below our feet. In particular, the results paint a worrying picture in regards to climate change – and it seems that humanity could be facing a greater threat than ever before.
Ever since the explorer James Cook first navigated this frozen wasteland, mankind has seemingly been fascinated by the vast expanse of Antarctica. But while modern technology has helped us to map its icy terrain, there is much about this mysterious continent that remains unexplained. And considering it’s almost twice the size of Australia, that’s probably no big surprise.
But in 2014 a team of researchers from multiple institutions used a combination of physics and cutting-edge technology to create a new map of Antarctica. And five years later, they released the startling results. As a consequence of this study, the scientists had gleaned some worrying insights into the impact of climate change on one of Earth’s most extreme regions.
With global temperatures continually rising, many are concerned about what will happen if Antarctica’s ice sheet melts. And in order to more accurately predict the future, scientists must gather as much information as they can about the frozen continent. But will this latest development help us to stave off a terrifying fate?
Antarctica – the least-visited continent on planet Earth – remains a mystery to much of the world. In fact, its 5.5 million square miles are not home to any permanent residents. And only a handful of researchers and tourists visit every year. But for all its desolation, the frozen region holds an almost hypnotic sway that has captured our imagination.
Located in the far southern hemisphere surrounding the South Pole, Antarctica is almost completely covered in ice. And in many places, these frozen shelves stretch down for more than 6,200 feet. Unsurprisingly, this hostile environment is difficult for humans to survive in, although a selection of intrepid animals, including seals, call the landmass home.
Apart from our flippered friends, Antarctica had no indigenous population to speak of. Humans didn’t know about the landmass at all until the 1770s, in fact, when the British navigator Cook began exploring the region. And since then, researchers have made several attempts to uncover the secrets of the frozen continent. But with icy temperatures that have been known to plummet to almost -130°F, collecting data here is apparently no easy task.
In the past, researchers have used radar technology in order to map the terrain that lies beneath the ice sheets of Antarctica. Using pulses of microwave radiation, they have been able to gaze beneath the frozen tundra and build up a picture of what lies below. But this technique has always had its limitations.
In some of the deepest parts of Antarctica, for instance, radar technology has been unable to accurately map the terrain. According to experts, this is because the microwaves bounce off the sides of valleys or trenches without reaching the bottom. And as such, it has been impossible for scientists to determine exactly what lies beneath the surface.
However, in December 2019 all that changed, thanks to a team of researchers hailing from various institutions across Europe, Australia, China, South Korea, India and the United States. In that month, you see, the results of a study led by the University of California were published. And contained within it were some fascinating – and sobering – new facts about Antarctica.
Dubbed BedMachine Antarctica, the project was kick-started to build the most accurate map yet of the terrain beneath the frozen continent. And in order to do so, those involved in the enterprise consulted records from 19 different institutions dating all the way back to 1967. In the decades since, it seems, researchers have compiled almost a million miles worth of radar data.
Using this data as a starting point, then, the researchers began constructing their map of Antarctica. However, there were still large areas of the continent that remained uncharted. So the scientists turned to a different approach in order to fill in the gaps – a method known as mass conservation.
Essentially, the principle of mass conservation is a law in physics which states that mass cannot change over time. Therefore, in a system where neither matter nor energy can enter or leave, the mass will remain the same. And even if chemical reactions take place within that system, the resultant components will have the same mass.
But what does that mean in layman’s terms – and just how has it helped BedMachine’s researchers build up a clearer picture of the Antarctic terrain? Well, by following the principle of mass conservation, it seems that the team successfully established just how much ice is trapped in the continent’s sunken valleys.
Apparently, the process involved using satellite data to determine exactly how ice was moving across Antarctica. And once researchers knew how much frozen matter was entering the continent’s valleys – and how quickly it was moving – they had everything they needed. Armed with this information, the scientists were well on their way to filling in gaps in their knowledge that radar simply couldn’t penetrate.
And by establishing the volume of ice in Antarctica’s valleys, the researchers could learn even more. Yes, they were also apparently able to determine how deep the features stretched beneath the surface. As well as this, it seems that the scientists could even predict the exact shape and contours of the valley floor.
So, on December 12, 2019, the results of the study were finally made public in the scientific journal Nature Geoscience. And the following day, they were announced at the Fall Meeting of the American Geophysical Union in San Francisco, CA. Amazingly, the researchers had succeeded in creating the most detailed map of Antarctica to date.
“This is undoubtedly the most accurate portrait yet of what lies beneath Antarctica’s ice sheet,” study co-author Dr. Mathieu Morlighem told the BBC in December 2019. But even he could not have predicted what this ground-breaking work would uncover. Yes, according to reports, it seems that the BedMachine project has revealed a record-breaking canyon hidden beneath the surface of Antarctica.
In East Antarctica – where the frozen continent meets the Southern Ocean – there is an Australian territory known as Queen Mary Land. And back in 1912 explorers discovered a vast glacier in this remote and desolate terrain. Dubbed the Denman Glacier, it stretches for some 12 miles across the landscape.
The really exciting thing about the Denman Glacier, though, is the canyon that lies beneath it. And thanks to the BedMachine project, we now know that this valley reaches far below sea level – some 11,500 feet to be exact. In fact, it’s the deepest point ever discovered on the surface of the Earth.
Much, much more here.