Scientists Surprised to Discover Hundreds of Miles of Mountains and Valleys Beneath Antarctica Ice Sheets

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Mountain ranges and valleys hundreds of miles long are hidden deep beneath Western Antarctica’s vast ice region, a discovery that scientists say shows Antarctica could contribute even more to rising global sea levels, reports Kristine Phillips for the Washington Post.

The researchers discovered three valleys linking two major ice regions: the Western Antarctic Ice Sheet and the far bigger Eastern Antarctic Ice Sheet. The newly discovered landforms prevent ice from East Antarctica from flowing through West Antarctica and to the coast.

Antarctic ice sheets. Credit: REUTERS/Mariano Caravaca/Handout.

But as ice sheets thin because of warming temperatures, these valleys and mountain ranges could “increase the speed and rate at which ice flows out from the center of the Antarctic to its edges, leading to an increase in global sea levels,” explained Kate Winter, the study’s lead author and a research fellow at Northumbria University.

“Understanding how the East and West Antarctica ice sheets interact is fundamental to our understanding of past, present and future global sea level,” said Neil Ross, a senior lecturer at Newcastle University.

The biggest of the valleys, called Foundation Trough, is 217 miles long, nearly equal to the distance between Washington, DC, and New York City. Its width is more than 20 miles. The other valley, called Patuxent Trough, is nearly 200 miles long and nine miles wide. The smallest, the Offset Rift Basin, is 93 miles long and 18 miles wide.

Credit: Geophysical Research Letters/Kate Winter et al

The discovery was a surprise to researchers. Winter told NBC News that they had expected to find a mountainous region, but they were not expecting the enormous size of the landforms.

Research has shown that Antarctica’s coastal glaciers, particularly in West Antarctica, are retreating at an alarming rate, raising concerns about the massive continent’s potential contribution to rising sea levels.

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