The Secret World Beneath Antarctica’s Ice

Andrew | | BrainsBrains
An Antarctic peak covered with ice – PC: Robert Haverly

Antarctica may be the world’s most mysterious continent, a frozen world free from permanent human development or habitation. The unforgiving environment holds the world’s record low temperature of −128.6 °F(−89.2 °C) set in 1983 and is consistently the coldest, driest, and windiest area on Earth. Despite the unique attributes of the surface, scientists have increasingly been drawn to the land hiding under the 1.2-mile-thick ice sheet that covers all but two percent of the continent. Research has suggested that the unique subglacial geology could hold clues about global warming and the evolution of marine biology.

Despite the frigid environment, more than 400 known lakes exist on the rocky Antarctic floor. But how does water not freeze in such a cold environment? In a word: pressure. The massive weight of the ice above allows the water to stay liquid well below typical freezing point, the ice even helps to insulate the water against the howling winds above, keeping it fluid. An expansive network of lakes and rivers ushers the melting glacial water out to the ocean while allowing the ice to easily slide around the continent as if on ice skates.

A topographical view of the canyon under Deadman Glacier – PC: NASA Scientific Visualization

In a world of extremes, Antarctica lays claim to the recently discovered deepest land canyon in the world. Laying under the Deadman Glacier in East Antarctica, the canyon reaches more than 11,000 feet (3,353 m) below sea level—far deeper than the old record holder, the Dead Sea, at 1,419 feet (433 m) below sea level. The canyon was discovered as a part of a wider project aiming to map the Antarctic floor. This research allowed scientists to target drilling operations in 2013 and discover rare microbial life living off of oxidized gasses in the water. Despite the unique geology below, the ice above is under a more pressing threat from global warming.

A warming global climate has left the Antarctic ice sheet melting at a rapid pace—nearly three and a half Olympic swimming pools every second. This rate is more than six times faster than only 40 years ago. Despite this, the Antarctic floor can tell us more about when and where ice will melt. The aforementioned mapping project, BedMachine Antarctica, has helped to visualize the land and water under the ice and project areas that may melt away or be prone to falling in the coming decades. This is of great importance because knowledge surrounding the stability of the glacial ice allows scientists to model the rate and extent of sea-level rise.

Glaciers around Antarctica are at risk of melting and raising the global sea level – PC: Derek Oyen

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