Underground Antarctic Mountains Revealed

They are one of the least explored environments on Earth

Everyone knows that there are regions on our planet that are not exactly suited for human habitation. Others cannot even be visited due to their extreme conditions, while others are obviously there, but just beyond our reach. Perhaps the most important part of this last category is the underground mountain chain that lies beneath miles of ice, underneath Antarctica. According to geologists, the mountains rival the Alps in size, span and general “good looks,” but they are almost entirely obscured by several miles of ice, that accumulated on top of them for tens of millions of years.

But recently, experts managed to get the first proper look at this range, through high-detail images. That's not to say studies on this issue have not been conducted before. It's just that they did not provide experts with sufficient data to formulate hypothesis or to learn more about how the mountains formed, developed, and eventually got covered in ice. The new data, on the other hand, reveal for example that there are some peaks which exceed a height of 8,000 feet (2,400 meters). The largest part of the mountain range is located under Eastern Antarctica, about 1.6 kilometers underground.

“What we'd shown before was an estimate based on gravity data – a little bit of a coarse resolution tool. What we showed at this meeting was the radar data. It's like going from using a big, fat sharpie to using a fine-tipped pencil,” explains senior research scientist Robin Bell, who is based in New York, at the Columbia University Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory. The range was found about half a century ago by Russian scientists who called them the Gamburtsev Mountains. The peaks extend over more than 1,200 kilometers, or 750 miles, making them some of the longest chain in the world. The new images, presenting them in greater details, were presented at a conference in Oslo, Norway, which marked the International Polar Year (IPY).

“We now know it's not a volcanic mountain range. And uplift by a hotspot in the mantle is probably out in terms of a mechanism of formation,” says British Antarctic Survey (BAS) expert, and study team member, Kathryn Rose. “Scientists need to improve our understanding of ice sheets and their dynamics because it impacts sea level everywhere. We're still scratching our heads as to how the mountains were made and why they're still there. But I think we have the data we need to solve the puzzle,” concludes Bell, in an interview for OurAmazingPlanet.

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