If you think the Grand Canyon is spectacular, you need to take a trip to East Antarctica. That’s because geologists just announced the discovery of the world’s largest canyon beneath the Antarctic ice. The amazing geologic formation was recently described in a paper published in the most recent edition of the academic journal Geology. The authors of the new study are from the UK’s Dunham and Newcastle universities and Imperial College London.
The just-discovered mega-canyon is found in Princess Elizabeth Land in East Antarctica, and is buried under a layer of ice over a mile deep. The newly crowned world’s largest canyon is thought to be over 620 miles long and as deep as 3,280 feet in certain locations. That means the PEL canyon is well over twice the length of the Grand Canyon, which is a stunning 277 miles long. Both of the mega-canyons are around a mile deep in most areas.
Statements from researchers
Dr Stewart Jamieson, from the Department of Geography at Durham University in the UK, was the lead researcher on the project. He commented: “Our analysis provides the first evidence that a huge canyon and a possible lake are present beneath the ice in Princess Elizabeth Land. It’s astonishing to think that such large features could have avoided detection for so long.
“This is a region of the Earth that is bigger than the UK and yet we still know little about what lies beneath the ice. In fact, the bed of Antarctica is less well known than the surface of Mars. If we can gain better knowledge of the buried landscape we will be better equipped to understand how the ice sheet responds to changes in climate.”
Martin Siegert, a professor at the Grantham Institute at Imperial College London and a member of the team, called the discovery “tantalizing,” but pointed out that further research is required to validate the surprising discovery.
“Geoscientists in Antarctica are carrying out experiments to confirm what we think we are seeing from the initial data, and we hope to announce our findings at a meeting of the ICECAP2 collaboration, at Imperial, later in 2016,” Siegert noted.
More on discovery of world’s largest canyon in Antarctica
Of note, the world’s largest canyon system comprises a chain of winding and linear features buried under miles of ice in the largely unexplored PEL. Because so few measurements of the ice thickness have been undertaken in this region, researchers call it one of Antarctica’s two ‘Poles of Ignorance’.
The amazing canyon beneath the Antarctic ice sheet was likely carved out by flowing water and may have even been there before the ice sheet grew on top of it, or it may have been formed over millennia by cold water flowing across and wearing away the surface beneath the ice.
The researchers highlight that although it cannot be seen by the the naked eye, the canyon can be identified in the surface of the ice sheet using various technologies.
In fact, the slightest traces of these subglacial canyons were seen with satellite imagery, and then small sections of the canyons were located using radio-echo sounding data (using radio waves to map the shape of the rocks beneath the ice). The large features identified by the research seem to to reach from the interior of Princess Elizabeth Land around the Vestfold Hills and across the West Ice Shelf.
It’s also possible the mega-canyons are connected to a previously unknown subglacial lake. The data from the study suggests the area of the lake could be to 1250 square kilometers.
Of interest, a new airborne survey making radio-echo sounding measurements over the entire area is now underway to confirm the existence and size of the giant canyon and lake system, but the data from the survey will probably not be available until the second half of 2016.