Beneath Antarctica’s millions of square miles of ice, beneath the snow thousands of feet thick, sits dirt and rock like every other continent. In fact, scientists now say they’ve discovered a collection of hidden continents under Antarctica left over from millions of years ago.
The researchers from Kiel University in Germany and the British Antarctic Survey who made this surprising find were relying on data from the European Space Agency’s GOCE satellite. GOCE was a simple satellite that measured the pull of Earth’s gravity as it orbited the planet. By measuring exactly where Earth’s gravity was strongest and weakest, scientists could paint a clear picture of the planet’s structure and composition beneath the surface.
“These gravity images are revolutionizing our ability to study the least understood continent on Earth, Antarctica,” said study author Fausto Ferraccioli in a press release.
Using data from that satellite, the researchers took a look at Antarctica under the ice. They discovered geologic structures called cratons, which are the core regions of most tectonic plates. They also found orogens, which are folded-up regions of plates that are the precursors to mountain ranges. By studying the number of cratons and orogens, researchers can compare the continental plates beneath Antarctica to other regions around the world.
For instance, East Antarctica is a patchwork of old cratons and younger orogens. The researchers found similar structures in Australia and India. West Antarctica, on the other hand, has a thinner and more homogeneous crust more closely resembling the southern tip of South America.
This new information tells scientists more about how the Antarctic continent formed. More importantly, it tells scientists what will happen to it in the future. Antarctica is melting pretty quickly, and knowing the underlying structure of the continent can tell us how that will happen, and—hopefully—how it will eventually recover.
Follow-up experiments, like NASA’s GRACE mission, can provide even more detail about the land underneath Antarctica, and help scientists paint an even clearer picture of what lies underneath all that ice. With any luck, that data can help scientists save at least some of it.