A research expedition to Antarctica has revealed that beneath the vast expanse of ice in an ancient mountain range there is a trench, much deeper than the Grand Canyon. The research team represented several UK universities and was led by Neil Ross of Newcastle University. The findings were published in journal of The Geological Society of America Bulletin.
The team was performing a geological survey of the Ellsworth Subglacial Highlands, which is the remnants of a mountain range, now encased in ice. This area is where the West Antarctic Ice Sheet originated about 34 million years ago during the late Eocene. Through studying the characteristics of the ice sheet over such a long period of time, the researchers will gain information about what that Antarctic region looked like when global temperatures were much hotter than they are now. This may also give clues about what it could look like in the future as the climate continues to change.
Because of the intense Antarctic conditions, research is usually only performed during the summer season, which lasts six months. It took the team three seasons to complete their survey of the highlands. In order to properly survey the highlands, the team used satellite data and radar probes to peer though several kilometers of ice.
After all of the data had been collected, the team was able to locate where the West Antarctic Ice Sheet first originated. Features of the ice sheet, including thickness and behavior, were noted. They were also able to identify geological features of the ancient mountain range that had been cut by glaciers, including tributary valleys and fjords.
Stunningly, the team also discovered what they have named the Ellsworth Trough. It is a valley trench that dips down about 3 kilometers (1.9 miles). As a comparison, the deepest portion of the Grand Canyon is 1.8 kilometers (1.1 miles). The trench is 300 kilometers (1,900 miles) long, 25 kilometers (15.5 miles) wide, and the lowest point is 2000 meters (6500 feet) below sea level.
Aside from monitoring the receding ice as a record to the environmental impact from increasing global temperatures, lead author Dr. Neil Ross hails the discovery as a testament to the fact that there is still much to discover on Earth. There are still large areas that have not been thoroughly explored and potentially many hidden gems like the Ellsworth Trough, waiting to be discovered.