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New Life Forms May Lurk Under the Antarctic Ice

Researchers have discovered what may be a giant lake buried beneath the East Antarctic ice sheet. Satellite imagery shows linear grooves that are usually a telltale sign of being created from the outflows of a lake. The grooves appear to be spread out over 600 miles toward the east coast of Antarctica on Princess Elizabeth Land, between Vestfold Hills and the West Ice Shelf. It is conveniently located close to the Russian Vostok research station.

Professor Martin Siegert co-director of the Grantham Institute at Imperial College in London leads the Lake Ellsworth Consortium –AUK-NERC funded program that “aims to explore a large subglacial lake beneath the ice shelf of West Antarctica.” He says,

We’ve seen these strange, linear channels on the surface, and are inferring these are above massive, 1,000 kilometer long channels and there’s a relatively large subglacial lake there, too.

In size, this new ribbon-shaped lake, 60 miles long and 6 miles wide, would be only second in size to Lake Vostok, the fourth deepest lake on earth and the largest of Antarctica’s subglacial lakes. Geologists have not only discovered hints of the lake but also of the world’s biggest canyon, 621 miles long.

Dr. Neil Ross from Newcastle University, UK and co-author of the research says,

Antarctica scientists have long recognized that because the way ice flows, the landscape beneath the ice sheet was subtly reflected in the topography of the ice sheet surface. Despite this, these vast deep canyons and potential large lake had been overlooked entirely.

A massive lake and canyon may be hiding under the Antarctic ice.

A massive lake and canyon may be hiding under the Antarctic ice.

Radio-echo-sounding (RES) was carried out in sections of the canyon. This ice-penetrating radar sent radio waves through the ice to map the rock contours below.

Lead researcher, Dr, Stewart Jamieson from the Department of Geography at Durham University in York, UK says,

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. This is a region of the earth that is bigger than the UK 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 a better knowledge of the buried landscape we will be better equipped to understand how the ice sheet responds to changes in climate.

Microbes and new life forms millions of years in age may be discovered under the ice shelf.

Microbes and new life forms millions of years in age may be discovered under the ice shelf.

If a lake lies beneath the ice, scientists say that it may harbor unique life forms, microbial ecosystems, that may have evolved on their own under the ice for millions of years.

Christine Dow of the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center in the US says,

The potential discovery of large canyons and lakes could have a big impact on our understanding of tectonic and hydrological evolution in this part of the ice sheet.

Siegert sums up,

We’re meeting in May to look at the (RES) data. It will be a very good test to our hypothesis about the lake and channels.

The team hopes to present its further findings at a conference at Imperial College later this year.