Salty secrets

Look: A vast reservoir of water has been hiding under Antarctic ice, researchers confirm

Ice sheet models will need to be updated.

Kerry Key, Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, Columbia University

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Beneath Antarctica’s glaciers, there are numerous lakes and rivers of liquid water that flow freely.

Researchers know these subglacial bodies of water exist — but their full extent has been elusive.

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Kerry Key, Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, Columbia University

Writing in the journal Science on Friday, researchers describe a reservoir and system of waterways beneath the icy continent that is far more vast and deep than expected.

Previous studies have mapped underground lakes and rivers using imagery taken from helicopters and satellites. But it's hard to penetrate the ice to get a full picture.

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For the Science paper, researchers used a technique that measures how much electromagnetic energy is conducted by different structures and living things below the surface of the ice.

Kerry Key, Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, Columbia University

They spent six weeks planting instruments in roughly four dozen locations across the Whillans Ice Stream to measure the water flows beneath it.

This time-lapse shows the team setting up just one of the stations used to measure electromagnetic waves beneath the surface of the ice.

Kerry Key, Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, Columbia University

They discovered a reservoir deep below the surface with 10 times more water than the shallower waterways that flow at the base of the ice sheet.

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The deeper the water went, the saltier it became.

Researchers think this could be the result of seawater becoming trapped beneath the ice 2,000 to 4,000 years ago.

Kerry Key, Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, Columbia University

Understanding water flows beneath the continent is vital to explaining all the factors that cause Antarctica’s ice sheets to move.

It will also help researchers build better models of ice sheet loss — and inform future predictions on how much melting we should expect.

Kerry Key, Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, Columbia University

“Understanding the influence of this groundwater on ice sheet behavior will require its integration into the next generation of ice sheet models.”

Gustafston et al, study authors

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