Scientists discover a giant groundwater system under the ice sheet in Antarctica

The waters hold the danger that they may raise sea levels worldwide in a warming climate.
Loukia Papadopoulos
Massive Iceberg floating in the Southern Ocean in Antarctica.Ray Hems/iStock

Have you ever stared at the long ice sheets in the Antarctic and wondered what lies beneath? Now, Columbia University researchers have explored this question and found an answer that may surprise you, according to a study published in Science on Thursday.

Hypotheses come to life

The team has discovered for the first time ever a huge, actively circulating groundwater system in deep sediments in West Antarctica.

"People have hypothesized that there could be deep groundwater in these sediments, but up to now, no one has done any detailed imaging," said in the press release the lead author of the study, Chloe Gustafson, who did the research as a graduate student at Columbia University's Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory.

"The amount of groundwater we found was so significant, it likely influences ice-stream processes. Now we have to find out more and figure out how to incorporate that into models."

A significant danger in a warming climate

As exciting as the discovery is, it also indicates some dangers related to today's climate crisis. The researchers warn that most of Antarctica's sedimentary basins currently lie below current sea level, meaning that if the ice shelves were to pull back in a warming climate, ocean waters could re-invade the sediments, and the glaciers behind them could rush forward, raising sea levels worldwide.

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"Antarctica contains 57 meters (187 feet) of sea-level rise potential, so we want to make sure we are incorporating all of the processes that control how ice flows off of the continent and into the oceans. Groundwater is currently a missing process in our models of ice flow," said Gustafson in an email to CNN.

Gustafson and her team used a technique called magnetotelluric imaging to map the sediments beneath the ice over a period of six weeks in 2018. They studied a 60-mile-wide (96.6-kilometer-wide) area belonging to Whillans Ice Stream, one of a few streams feeding the Ross Ice Shelf, the world's largest.

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