It’s Not What You Think

December 31, 2021

Scientists Have Found An Incredible Secret Below The Ice of Antarctica The southernmost continent in the world, Antarctica, continues to be a source of fascination and mystery for people around the globe. Our knowledge of this frozen continent began on January 17, 1773, when famed explorer James Cook became the first to cross the Antarctic Circle which surrounds it. Cook is pictured in the painting below.

Captain Cook

On January 27, 1820, a group of Russian explorers became the first to lay eyes on Antarctica. They sighted an ice shelf that bordered what is now known as Queen Maud’s Land. While our understanding of the last discovered continent has progressed considerably since then, what do we really know about Antarctica? Due to its harsh climate and remote location, Antarctica is the loneliest and least visited of the seven major continents. Spanning across 5.5 million square miles, it is home to many penguins, seals, and whales but has no permanent human residents. Nevertheless, Antarctica has remained a constant source of fascination ever since it was first discovered. Each year, small groups of researchers and tourists continue to visit the frozen landmass.

A Startling Discovery

Thousands of miles away in the Golden State of California, scientists have made a shocking discovery about Antarctica. This discovery is not about the surface of the continent but what lies many miles below the ice.

photo Courtesy: [Joe Mastroianni, National Science Foundation

Given that Antarctica is nearly twice as large as Australia, it is no surprise that this has not been found until now. When one takes into account the increasing dangers of climate change, this discovery becomes even more unsettling. This scientific breakthrough came about as a result of a mutual effort between several institutions. In 2014, these collaborators utilized advanced technology and physics to map out the entire continent.

Antarctica is twice the size of Australia

Five years after they created the map, these scientists made their findings public for the first time. While it was highly informative, it also made some chilling implications about the effects of climate change on Antarctica. For years, scientists have been able to peer below the surface of Antarctica using radar technology. By sending out pulses of microwave radiation, they have been able to systematically map out the terrain underneath the dense sheets of ice.

Unfortunately, this technology is not without its limitations. The depth of certain regions of Antarctica has made it impossible for the microwaves to determine what lies beneath with any accuracy. Instead of reaching the bottom, they are deflected by trenches, valleys, and other geological formations.In December 2019, the moment of truth came at last for Antarctica and its mysterious underside. The team of international researchers, whose members are from all over the United States, Europe, Australia, and Asia, revealed the findings from their project.Known as BedMachine Antarctica, its objective was to map the area beneath the surface as accurately as possible. In preparation, these researchers reviewed records from almost 50 years prior. The radar data compiled from these records cover nearly a million miles.

While this data was certainly insufficient to complete the project, it provided a starting point for the researchers. With this as their foundation, they were able to begin assembling their comprehensive map of Antarctica. To fill in the gaps, the scientists turned to the principle of mass conservation.

Mikhail Lomonosov

This scientific law was discovered by Mikhail Lomonosov, who is pictured above. It states that if any closed system is never exposed to external forces, then it is constant. Essentially, since matter cannot be created or destroyed, it remains unchanged as long as there is no outside interference. The terrain beneath the ice would be an example of a closed system. With the principle of mass conservation in mind, the scientists determined how much ice is beneath Antarctica. They accomplished this by establishing how ice moved across the continent. Knowing the quantity and speed of ice entering its valleys, they began filling in the gaps. This helped supplement the sometimes limited data gathered by radar. Not only did the scientists determine how much ice was in these valleys, but they also found out how far they went underground. By pulling back the curtain, the team could determine the structure and contours of the valley floor. Through their unrelenting and unceasing efforts, the most expansive map of Antarctica was created. The results of their study appeared in Nature Geoscience, a scientific journal printed by Nature Research. On December 13, 2019, a day after the magazine was published, the results were presented at a meeting of the American Geophysical Union. The findings of the study are tied directly to Queen Mary Land, which is part of the Australian Antarctic Territory. It is located in East Antarctica near the Southern Ocean.

Queen Mary

Also known as the Queen Mary Coast, it was discovered in 1912 by the Australian Antarctic Expedition. They named the entire region after Mary of Teck, who was Queen of the United Kingdom. She was the wife of King George V and grandmother of Queen Elizabeth II. Mary is depicted in the painting above. One of the most important landmarks in Queen Mary Land is the Denman Glacier. This enormous glacier spans roughly 12 miles and dominates the remote landscape.

As can be seen in the map above, there are several other notable glaciers in the area. These are the Reid Glacier, the Scott Glacier, the Northcliffe Glacier, and the Apple Glacier. However, the Denman Glacier has a secret that none of these other glaciers can claim. The researchers discovered a massive canyon below the Denman Glacier. This canyon extends about 11,500 feet below sea level. While the existence of such a canyon is impressive, its size is the most important aspect. It is currently the lowest natural point ever discovered on land.

By comparison, the Byrd Glacier only extends 9,121 feet below sea level. The Byrd Glacier is located nearly 1,400 miles away from the Denman Glacier in the Ross Dependency. The Ross Dependency is the region of Antarctica that is named after Sir James Clark Ross and is administered by New Zealand.

Before the Denman Glacier canyon was discovered, the lowest known point on land was in Asia. At the southern end of the Jordan Valley in Israel is the Dead Sea. This area where the river valley meets the Dead Sea is the lowest land on the entire continent. However, it only extends 1,411 feet beneath sea level. The canyon below the Denman Glacier exceeds this by nearly eight times. However, it only extends 1,411 feet beneath sea level. The canyon below the Denman Glacier exceeds this by nearly eight times. Interestingly, the lowest point on the entire planet is much deeper than even the Denman Glacier. In the depths of the Pacific Ocean, just east of the Mariana Islands is the Mariana Trench. At its absolute deepest point, the Mariana Trench is believed to reach 36,037 feet.The depth of the Mariana Trench is certainly impressive. However, the Antarctic canyon discovered by these scientists is equally so given its location on land. While it was known there was something under the Denman Canyon, no one had been able to map it before. The skill and ingenuity of these researchers proved to be the essential piece for this rewarding accomplishment. By overcoming the limitations of conventional radar technology, they made a groundbreaking discovery. While the depth of the valley was just part of what they found, it is certainly a notable aspect. Surprisingly, there are similarly deep valleys elsewhere in the world that are above sea level.

By overcoming the limitations of conventional radar technology, they made a groundbreaking discovery. While the depth of the valley was just part of what they found, it is certainly a notable aspect. Surprisingly, there are similarly deep valleys elsewhere in the world that are above sea level. The  Yarlung Tsangpo Grand Canyon runs along the Yarlung Tsangpo River in the Xizang Autonomous Region of southwestern China. At its deepest point, the canyon reaches nearly 20,000 feet.

What made it so challenging to map the canyon? Because of the multiple trenches running through the valley, the microwaves would simply bounce off them. This made it practically impossible to determine where the actual bed of the glacier was. But this diverse and knowledgeable team of researchers succeeded in overcoming these seemingly insurmountable challenges. This made it practically impossible to determine where the actual bed of the glacier was. But this diverse and knowledgeable team of researchers succeeded in overcoming these seemingly insurmountable challenges.

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