Scientists discover a river under Antarctica’s ice

The river is longer than the Thames, the longest river in England
This radar data shows the river. It is flowing out into the Weddell Sea, which is in the top left corner. (Dow et al., Nature Geoscience, 2022)

All across the polar regions, ice caps and glaciers are melting. Scientists know this fact very well.

But there are still puzzling mysteries about what is happening under all of that ice. Especially in Antarctica, which is essentially one enormous landscape of frozen water.

Now research has found something under the ice that is quite amazing. A river. And it's a big one.

Using ice-penetrating radar, they have discovered a river that flows for 460 km (286 miles). This is longer than the Thames River, which is the long river that flows through southern England. The newly found river flows out into the Weddell Sea, a part of the Southern Ocean that is next to the Antarctic Peninsula.

A whole network?

This is not the first time that researchers have found water under the Antarctic ice sheet. Over the last twenty years or so, many pools of water, and even lakes, have been discovered under a thick ice.

But a river like this is a first. And finding it suggests that it is not alone. In a statement, Martin Siegert, a scientist who worked on a study, had this to say:

"When we first discovered lakes beneath the Antarctic ice a couple of decades ago, we thought they were isolated from each other. Now we are starting to understand there are whole systems down there, interconnected by vast river networks, just as they might be if there weren't thousands of meters of ice on top of them."

That is a really cool picture when you think about it. Because it is true: under all of that ice is land. Lots and lots of land. There are mountains and valleys. And without the ice, water would move across them and collect in lakes and rivers.

Just like any other land mass on Earth.

Faster melting

Embed from Getty Images

Scientists are only just starting to understand all of the ways that ice is melting in Antarctica. (Getty Embed)

Of course, Antarctica is not just any other land mass. It being covered with so much ice is a huge part of the balance of the planet.

It has about 90 percent of the world's ice and 70 percent of its freshwater. And we all know that as that water melts, that balance—and the world's coastlines—will change dramatically.

This brings us back to the river. Discoveries like this confirm that melting is not only happening from above. It is happening under the ice as well. This river is being fed by melting ice. And the more that rivers like this flow, the more that they break down the stability of the ice sheet, especially where the ice meets the ocean. Which in turn leads to even more melting.

Scientists call this a feedback loop. This is when one action causes a second action to occur, and that second action then causes the first action to happen more. Both actions feed each other.

Rivers like this could be a key to the future of Antarctica, which could be one where the ice sheets are more seasonal as they already are in parts of the Arctic.

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