Massive Subglacial Trench Discovered in Antarctica


PHOTO: Christopher Michel
PHOTO: Christopher Michel

In January 2014, a team of British scientists discovered a massive ice trench in West Antarctica, and named it the Ellsworth Trough. An ancient subglacial trench* that is deeper than the Grand Canyon, it was estimated to have been created millions of years ago. The trench began as a river that froze, and was carved over time by slow-moving glaciers.

There are ancient mountains, valleys and lakes hidden underneath the layers of ice covering the Ellsworth Trough. The subglacial landscape shows where and how the ice sheet grew and also it shows important clues about the size and shape of the ice sheet in a warmer global climate. There is no detailed information how climate change will affect Ellsworth Trough at this time.

Scientists are also not sure exactly when this massive ice trench was formed. Neil Ross, lead author of the paper published about the discovery, states; “What we do know is that Antarctica has been glaciated** for at least 34 million years, and during this time the ice in West Antarctica would have oscillated in size from the small ice-field conditions … to the large ice sheet that we see today.”

Experts from six universities in the United Kingdom discovered the trench while mapping the Ellsworth Subglacial Highlands. NASA helped the scientists to get more detailed information through satellite imaging. The trough is up to 300 km (186.4 miles) long, 25 km (15.5 miles) across and 3 km (1.9 miles) deep—twice as deep as the Grand Canyon!

*Subglacial trench: a long, narrow ditch beneath a glacier, usually carved out by flowing water

*Glaciated: covered with ice or glaciers

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