Wednesday January 13, 2016

Scientists discover canyon under Antarctic ice that may be bigger than the Grand

Glaciologist Martin Siegert stands on an ice bed in Antarctica

Glaciologist Martin Siegert stands on an ice bed in Antarctica (Martin Siegert)

Listen 6:37

When glaciologist Martin Siegert and his colleagues first looked at the satellite images, they knew they were seeing something big under the ice. And, as it turns out, what they saw could be one of the world's biggest canyons — buried under the ice in a little-known part of Antarctica.

New Canyon in Antarctica

From Satellite image of newly discovered canyon in Antarctica (The Grantham Institute, Imperial College - London, England)

The scientists behind the discovery are now awaiting results, and final confirmation, from a geophysical survey underway in Antarctica. But there's little doubt about their confidence and excitement.

It's called the 'pole of ignorance', in Antarctic speak. - Martin Siegert, glaciologist

Professor Siegert tells As It Happens host Carol Off, "This massive canyon that we've seen, and its extension over a thousand or so kilometres, is likely to be the last significant piece of landscape on our planet that we have left to identify."

Antarctic plane

Research teams use fly sensors that can map the rock bed beneath the ice. (ICECAP2)

Siegert, of Imperial College in London, England, says that what they saw was consistent with features they've seen on other ice beds that have canyons lying below them.

"It's very subtle," says Siegert. "But if you use accurate satellite imagery you can actually pick out these things." 

Antarctica map 1

A visual of the hidden rock under the ice.

The area where the discovery has been made is in east Antarctica, in a place called Princess Elizabeth Land. "It's called the 'pole of ignorance', in Antarctic speak, and it's a place where we have virtually no idea what's underneath the ice."

Siegert and his team also believe there is a previously undiscovered sub-glacial lake attached to the canyon. He says that's important because "the reason we would want to get into that sub-glacial lake is that there might be extreme, yet viable, habitats for unusual microbial life."