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Valley Bigger Than Grand Canyon Mapped Under Antarctic Ice

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First Posted: Jan 14, 2014 05:45 PM EST
Researchers find a new, giant valley under Antarctic ice.
(Photo : Reuters)

A massive valley, deeper than the Grand Canyon, has been discovered in Antarctica.

The subglacial find also includes a mountain range that, along with the valley, were carved millions of years ago by an ice field similar to those in the present-day Antarctic Peninsula, in Arctic Canada and Alaska.

The new data is published in the latest edition of the Geological Society of America Bulletin.

Neil Ross, the paper's lead author from Newcastle University, said the "discovery of this huge trough, and the characterization of the surrounding mountainous landscape, was incredibly serendipitous.

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"We had acquired ice penetrating radar data from both ends of this huge hidden valley, but we had no information to tell us what was in between," Ross said in an informational release. "Satellite data was used to fill the gap, because despite being covered beneath several kilometers of ice, the valley is so vast that it can be seen from space."

Including teams from the United Kingdom's Newcastle University, the University of Bristol's Glaciology Centre, the British Antarctic Survey and the universities of Edinburgh, Exeter, and York, the charted the Ellsworth Subglacial Highlands -- an ancient mountain range buried beneath several miles of ice.

Researchers spent three seasons exploring and mapping the region with combined data from satellites and ice-penetrating radars towed behind snow vehicles and carried on small aircraft.

The effort uncovered a giant valley up to 3 kilometers deep, more than 300 kilometers long, up to 25 kilometers across and more than 2,000 meters below sea level, in some locations.

"By looking at the topography beneath the ice sheet using a combination of ice-penetrating radio-echo sounding and satellite imagery, we have revealed a region which possesses classic glacial geomorphic landforms, such as u-shaped valleys and cirques, that could only have been formed by a small ice cap, similar to those seen at present in the Canadian and Russian High Arctic," Martin Siegert, a professor of geosciences at the University of Bristol, said in a informational release. "The region uncovered is, therefore, the site of ice sheet genesis in West Antarctica."

Siegert continued in the release that "while the idea of West Antarctic Ice Sheet growth and decay over the past few million years has been discussed for decades, the precise location" of the ice's origination had never before been determined.

"To me, this just goes to demonstrate how little we still know about the surface of our own planet. The discovery and exploration of hidden, previously-unknown landscapes is still possible and incredibly exciting, even now," Ross said.

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