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World's Largest Canyon May Lie Beneath Antarctic Ice Sheet, Researchers Say [VIDEO]

Jan 14, 2016 01:01 PM EST
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New satellite data suggests a large chasm -- longer than the Grand Canyon -- lies beneath the Antarctic ice sheet.
(Photo : Flickr: Rob Oo)

The Antarctic ice sheet may be hiding the world's largest canyon, researchers say. Based on recent satellite data, it is estimated that a massive chasm measuring more than 683 miles in length and, in some places, nearly 3,280 feet deep, could rival the Grand Canyon as a world wonder.

While the discovery has yet to be confirmed with direct measurements, researchers say the canyon system is made up of a chain of winding and linear features buried deep beneath Princess Elizabeth Land in East Antarctica. Water erosion likely carved out the chasm, and is either so ancient that it existed before the Antarctic ice sheet was established or it was created by water flowing beneath the ice, eating away at buried rocks. Researchers also found evidence that the canyon might be connected to an undiscovered subglacial lake, according to a news release.

In order to map out what they believe is buried below over a mile of thick ice, researchers from Dunham and Newcastle universities and Imperial College London analyzed satellite images taken of small sections of the canyons, which were found using radio-echo sounding data, a process in which radio waves are sent through the ice to map the shape of the rock beneath it. (Scroll to read more...)

Canyon Under Antarctic Ice Sheet
(Photo : Newcastle University)

"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," lead researcher, Dr. Stewart Jamieson, from the Department of Geography at Durham University in the U.K., said in the university's release. "This is a region of the Earth that is bigger than the U.K. 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."

Now, an airborne survey of the area that employs targeted radio-echo sounding measurements is underway. Results are expected to be released later this year.  

"Discovering a gigantic new chasm that dwarfs the Grand Canyon is a tantalizing prospect. Geoscientists on 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," co-author Martin Siegert, a professor from the Grantham Institute at Imperial College London, added.

The findings were recently published in the journal Geology

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