Antarctica Hides Giant Canyons That Could Make Melting Worse

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A scientific crew from the UK, Denmark, the Netherlands, and Norway has just found a trio of underground canyons concealed under several hundred feet of ice inside Antarctica.

The largest canyon discovered was called the Foundation Trough and measures more than 200 miles long and over 21 miles wide.

"These troughs channelise ice from the centre of the continent, taking it towards the coast", explained Dr Winter.

This was funded in large part by the European Space Agency (Esa), which wanted to collect measurements over an area of planet that its satellites can not see (spacecraft generally only fly up to about 83 degrees in latitude).

"That makes the canyons really important, and we simply didn't know they existed before now", Kate Winter, a researcher at Northumbria University in the United Kingdom and the lead author of the paper, told the BBC.

"[If] climate conditions change in Antarctica, we might expect the ice in these troughs to flow a lot faster towards the sea". The scientists named it "Foundation Trough". "That makes them really important, and we simply didn't know they existed before now", she told BBC News.

"We now understand that the mountainous region is preventing ice from East Antarctica flowing through West Antarctica to the coast".

The two other troughs are similarly large.

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Antarctica's ice sheets look like they're stable enough to last forever, but that might not be true.

If this occurs even further in the area of the three underground canyons, the consequent shift in mass might unleash an acceleration of the ice flow across these grooves, and might function as a circuit which could trigger a bigger breakdown of the ice sheets, thereby increasing sea level rise.

One important implication is that these canyons and their surrounding mountains will likely act as a brake on any ice which might attempt to flow from the east of the continent, through the Transantarctic mountains, to the west. This project uses planes equipped with a radar over the places where satellites can not see, and it gathers data.

'The data we have gathered will enable ice sheet modellers to predict what will happen if the ice sheet thins, which will mean we can start to answer the questions we couldn't answer before'.

" Incredibly, the South Pole area is among the least comprehended frontiers in the entire of Antarctica", stated PolarGAP's principal investigator, Dr Fausto Ferraccioli from BAS.

The only way to fill this "data hole" is to fly sensors on planes instead. "These new PolarGAP data give us both insights into how the landscape beneath the ice influences present ice flow, and a better understanding of how the parts of the great Antarctic ice sheets near to South Pole can, and cannot, evolve in response to glaciological change around their margins".

Researchers theorize that the newly discovered canyons under the ice sheet have formed in a previous glacial period.

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