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Canyoneering in Antarctica

Canyoneering in Antarctica

Author: Hugh Bollinger/Friday, May 25, 2018/Categories: natural history, art and design, environment, adventure

                      Radar and LiDAR Equipped Twin Otter in Antarctica (credit: PolarGap project, ESA/BAS)

Canyoneering is an extreme from of canyon exploration. It doesn't get more extreme than in Antarctica where the discovery of a system of canyons exists under the Antarctic icecap. The British Antarctic Survey (BAS) and colleagues at Northumbria University in the UK, undertook research with the European Space Agency's PolarGap satellite survey of Antarctica. Their results revealed a vast system of canyons hinted at from some previous Antarctic reserach.

According to the, PolarGAP is an ambitious international mission to capture critical data about the Earth’s global gravity field using ESA's innovative radar systems and LiDAR technologies deployed on Twin Otter aircraft to fill the ‘data gap’ in surface elevation measurements over the South Pole region. The ESA's Earth observing satellites (GOCE and CryoSat 2) allowe the ability to ‘map’ the Earth’s global gravity field and monitor how Earth’s ice fields are responding to global change.

Publishing in Geophysical Research Letters the researchers noted that the:

collected radar data enabled mapping of the bedrock hidden beneath the. The data revealed the topography controls how quickly the ice flows between the East and West Antarctic ice sheets. The team mapped for the first time three vast, subglacial valleys in West Antarctica. These valleys could be important in the future as they help to channel the ice flowing from the center of the continent towards the coast. If climate change causes the ice sheet to thin, these troughs could increase the speed at which ice flows from the centre of Antarctica to the sea, raising global sea levels.

The researchers have named the largest valley, the Foundation Trough. It is more than 200 miles long, deeper than the Grand Canyon, and covered by nearly 2 miles of ice. The three valleys function like watersheds where the ice flows directionally towards the Ross Sea to the west and Weddell Sea in the east. A large sub-glacial lake was also discovered that may have existed since a time when Antarctica was ice free.


                                                                        Sub-ice Radar Map, Foundation Trough, Antarctica (credit: BAS)

Researchers at Durham University, also in the UK, had reviewing earlier data hinted towards a discovery of the newly mapped canyon system. It will be very important to watch what happens in these canyons as climate change continues to affect the southernmost continent.



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