Researchers from Northumbria University have discovered three large canyons under the ice at the South Pole, according to new research published in the journal Geophysical Research Letters.
The long formations are hundreds of miles long, but none of them are visible at the surface. To find the troughs, scientists turned to radar to peer beneath the snow.
Researchers behind the study believe the canyons are important because they may control the flow of ice in Antarctica. As a result, if the continent thins due to warming, the channels could accelerate mass towards the ocean and further raise sea-levels.
“These troughs channelize ice from the center of the continent, taking it towards the coast,” explained lead author Kate Winter, a researcher at Northumbria University, according to Gizmodo. “Therefore, if climate conditions change in Antarctica, we might expect the ice in these troughs to flow a lot faster towards the sea. That makes them really important, and we simply didn’t know they existed before now.”
The largest canyon — known as the Foundation Trough — is over 200 miles long and 20 miles wide. In contrast, the Patuxent Trough is over 200 miles long and 9 miles wide, while the Offset Rift Basin is more than 90 miles long and 18 miles wide.
All three sit beneath what is known as the “ice divide,” a ridge that runs from the South Pole toward the coast of West Antarctica.
Learning about the canyons is important because scientists plan to use computer models in order to see what the formations could mean for future warming scenarios.
This new finding is the first result to come from the PolarGAP project, which is largely funded by the European Space Agency (ESA) to collect measurements over areas of our world that its satellites cannot see.
The team plans to continue their research to get a better idea of the South Pole and perhaps better understand its role in Earth’s future.
“Remarkably, the South Pole region is one of the least understood frontiers in the whole of Antarctica,” said study co-author Fausto Ferraccioli, PolarGAP’s principal investigator, according to BBC News. “Our new aero-geophysical data will… enable new research into the geological processes that created the mountains and basins before the Antarctic ice sheet itself was born.”