AN ALPINE RANGE: Like the Alps (seen here), Antarctica's Gamburstev mountains are steep with deep river valleys. But scientists don't expect to have a complete topography of the frozen continent for several years Image: MARTIN SIEGERT
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The ice covering Antarctica got its start on the top of a high peak in the Gamburtsev mountains about 43 million years ago, according to a new study published today in Nature. Using simple radar to peer through the ice, researchers have gained new insights about the hidden mountains—and the formation of the ice that entombs them.
The ice, which can be as thick as 10,285 feet (3,135 meters) today, likely started to appear as a result of global climate change about 43 million years ago and has encased the continent for the last 14 million years, the paper notes. Subsequent periods of glaciation and melting may have carved out some of the 1,400-foot- (425-meter-) deep valleys.
The research team's radar readings reveal mountains not so different from the European Alps, with steep peaks and deep valleys. Although exactly how the Gamburtsev mountain range—which covers an area about the size of New York State—was formed remains a mystery. But the presence of at least one river valley suggests that the mountains were there—along with water—before the glaciers came to stay, according to the study, which was led by a team from the Polar Research Institute of China.
"We have a much better appreciation for the surface of Mars than we do for Antarctica," says Martin Siegert, head of the geosciences department at the University of Edinburgh in Scotland, who worked with the Chinese team. Without information about how and where the massive sheets of ice formed—not to mention the land they rest on—he explains, there's no way to make accurate computer climate models for the future.
Robin Bell, a senior research scientist at the Columbia University's Lamont–Doherty Earth Observatory, is also studying Antarctica's landmass says that, "It is a wonderful teaser for the results from the International Polar Year."
"It's hard to get evidence for how the ice sheet grew," says Bell, who blogged for ScientificAmerican.com about her research expedition this past winter. "If we're really going to understand how ice sheets change," and the impacts of climate change, she says, "we're going to have to understand how they grow." She hopes to have results from her research—and likely more insight about the formation of the Gamburtsev Mountains—later this year.
Siegert predicts it will be another five to 10 years before scientists have a complete map of the continent's topography. Like Earth's oceans, Antarctica is a far cry from Mars, indeed, whose surface is already available to explore by armchair travelers across the globe via Google Mars 3-D.