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Largest-Ever Flood Mapped Beneath Antarctica

3 July, 2013

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MessageToEagle.com - A vast crater in Antarctica’s icy surface has been found by ESA’s CryoSat satellite. The crater was probably left behind when a lake lying under about 3 km of ice suddenly drained.

Far below the thick ice sheet that covers Antarctica, there are lakes of fresh water without a direct connection to the ocean. These lakes are of great interest to scientists who are trying to understand water transport and ice dynamics beneath the frozen Antarctic surface – but this information is not easy to obtain.

One method is to drill holes through kilometres of ice to the water – a difficult endeavour in the harsh conditions of the polar regions. Another one is looking to the sky to improve the understanding of subglacial water and its transport.



Click on image to enlarge

Lakes and rivers are buried beneath Antarctica's thick ice. Illustration courtesy Zina Deretsky, NSF


Based on CryoSat's latest measurements and older data from NASA’s ICESat satellite, the team has mapped the large crater left behind by a lake, and even determined the scale of the flood that formed it.

From 2007 to 2008, six cubic kilometres of water – about the same amount that is stored in Scotland’s Loch Ness – drained from the lake, making it the largest event of its kind ever recorded.

That amount of water equals a tenth of the melting that occurs beneath Antarctica each year.

Since the end of 2008, the lake appears to be refilling but six times slower than it drained.
It could take decades to reform.

CryoSat carries a radar altimeter that can ‘see’ through clouds and in the dark, providing continuous measurements over areas like Antarctica that are prone to bad weather and long periods of darkness.

The radar can measure both the area and depth of ice craters in high resolution, allowing scientists to calculate its volume accurately.

“Thanks to CryoSat, we can now see fine details that were not apparent in older satellite data records,” said Dr Malcolm McMillan from the UK’s University of Leeds and lead author of the study.



Click on image to enlarge

Site of crater

Location of the crater in Victoria Land, East Antarctica at about 73ºS and 156ºE. The colour scale shows height derived from CryoSat data. The crater is located within the white box. Copyright ESA/M. McMillan

High resolution of the image.

With every subglacial lake, there is hope of finding prehistoric marine life. The rapid draining and apparent refilling of this lake, however, suggests this was not the first time water has drained from the lake.



3D view of the crater created using CryoSat data. The satellite can measure both area and depth, allowing scientists to calculate the total volume of the crater: six cubic km. Credits: ESA/M. McMillan


“It seems likely that the flood water – and any microbes or sediments it contained – has been flushed into the Southern Ocean, making it difficult to imagine that life in this particular lake has evolved in isolation,” said Prof. Andrew Shepherd, a co-author of the study.

About 400 lakes have been discovered at the base of the Antarctic ice sheet. When they drain, they disrupt subglacial habitats and can cause the ice above to slide more quickly into the sea.

The study is published in Geophysical Research Letters.


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See also:
Something Mysteriously Warms Antarctica Ice

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