Giant canyons discovered in Antarctica

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Ice penetrating radar was used to uncover the canyons, which cut through three expansive subterranean mountain ranges under the Antarctic ice shelf.

"Massive" is no understatement: The largest of the three is more than 200 miles long, its width in places spanning 20 miles, and certain parts more than a mile deep.

"These troughs channelise ice from the centre of the continent, taking it towards the coast", Dr Winter said.

Dr Fausto Ferraccioli, Head of Airborne Geophysics at British Antarctic Survey and the Principal Investigator of the European Space Agency PolarGAP project, explained: "Remarkably the South Pole region is one of the least understood frontiers in the whole of Antarctica".

Kate Winter, the lead study author and a researcher at Northumbria University in England, has stated that the retreat or thinning of the ice sheet could be facilitated by these valleys by enhancing the ice flow.

According to the journal Geophysical Research Letters, where they published their findings, the canyons lie on the borderline between the East and West Antarctic ice sheets, and they essentially direct ice flow to the sea, when the two sheets approximate each other.

"If weather conditions change in Antarctica, we might expect the ice in these canals to flow much faster to the sea". The scientists named it "Foundation Trough". "That makes them really important, and we simply didn't know they existed before now". The Patuxent Trough is more than 300 kilometers long and over 15 kilometers wide, while the Offset Rift Basin is 150 kilometers long and 30 kilometers wide.

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"We now understand that the mountainous region is preventing ice from East Antarctica flowing through West Antarctica to the coast".

To reach the bottom of the largest trench, the Foundation Trough, you would need to drill through 1.2 miles (two kilometres) of solid ice.

Antarctica's ice sheets look like they're stable enough to last forever, but that might not be true. Ice streams away on either side, through the channels - to the Weddell Sea in the east and the Ross Sea in the west.

Ice cores, long vertical samples taken from glaciers and ice sheets, can tell us a lot about the past - details in each individual layer of the sample contains clues about the age when it was formed, and big enough samples can go way back in time. Moreover, it would push the ice to Antarctica's edges, raising the global sea levels. The PolarGAP project is flying radar-equipped planes over those places to collect data in the satellites' stead.

The only way to gather data on the canyons hidden beneath the ice was to use aircrafts fitted with sensors. It will also accelerate the flow of ice through the newly discovered grooves.

It is possible the troughs detected under today's ice sheet were dug out during a previous glacial period when the ice over the continent was configured in a very different way.