Antarctica holds many mysteries but a new one seems to have been revealed recently. Another large lake is hiding under its ice – second only to Lake Vostok in size. Today 370 subglacial lakes are known and they are of great interest because of the possibility that they could harbour unique life forms that may have existed in isolation, locked under ice for millions of years.

An artist's representation of the Antarctic aquatic system scientists believe is buried beneath the Antarctic ice sheet. (Credit: Zina Deretsky, National Science Foundation)
An artist's representation of the Antarctic aquatic system scientists believe is buried beneath the Antarctic ice sheet. (Credit: Zina Deretsky, National Science Foundation)

Antarctica may be hiding a large lake under its ice – second only to Lake Vostok in size ­– according to data presented at the European Geosciences Union meeting in Vienna in April. Although it doesn’t quite beat Lake Vostok‘s 240 km by 60 km size, the new lake is much closer to a research station. This would make it easier to approach and study in detail, says Martin Siegert of Imperial College London, a member of the team that located the putative lake. Subglacial lakes occur because the ice base is kept warm by geothermal heating, and generated meltwater collects in topographic hollows.

The team’s claim comes from satellite imagery, in which they identified grooves on the ice surface similar to those present above known subglacial lakes and channels. “We’ve seen these strange, linear channels on the surface, and are inferring these are above massive, 1000 km long channels, and there’s a relatively large subglacial lake there too,” said Siegert. He says the lake is around 100 km long by 10 km wide and is ribbon-shaped. The long channels and canyons that seem to extend from the lake appear to spread for more than 1000 km towards the eastern coast of Antarctica on Princess Elizabeth Land, between Vestfold Hills and the West Ice Shelf. Two channels in particular seem to turn upwards into the ice and may convey water out of the West Ice Shelf into the ocean. “It’s the last un-researched part of Antarctica, so it’s very exciting news, but it’s still tentative pending full confirmation,” says Bryn Hubbard of the University of Aberystwyth, UK.

The newly discovered lake lies in Princess Elizabeth Land, East Antarctica. Earlier this year a canyon system was also discovered under the ice, made up of a chain of winding and linear features buried under several kilometres (Satellite data: MODIS, Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer)
The newly discovered lake lies in Princess Elizabeth Land, East Antarctica. Earlier this year a canyon system was also discovered under the ice, made up of a chain of winding and linear features buried under several kilometres (Satellite data: MODIS, Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer)

Siegert says that a team of collaborators from China and the US have recently flown over the region and gathered ice penetrating radar data that will likely confirm the existence of the features under the ice. “We’re meeting in May to look at the data,” he said. “It will be a very good test of our hypothesis about the lake and channels.”

A Snow eagle aircraft takes off to one of the last unexplored regions of the Earth’s land surface, Princess Elizabeth Land, for a survey. Equipped with ice penetration radar antennas it will search for structures under the ice, mountain ranges and lakes.  (Source: Durham University)
A Snow eagle aircraft takes off to one of the last unexplored regions of the Earth’s land surface, Princess Elizabeth Land, for a survey. Equipped with ice penetration radar antennas it will search for structures under the ice, mountain ranges and lakes. (Source: Durham University)

If the existence of the lake and the channels is confirmed, as Siegert expects, he says it will be a major boost for Antarctic science and for research on subglacial lakes. Just 100 km from the nearest research base – a stone’s throw on Antarctic scales – the new lake is far more accessible than others such as Lake Vostok, which is very remote. That, says Siegert, should make it far easier to conduct vital investigations into the biology of the lake, to find out if it supports species unlike any others on the planet. “It’s really nice to see some new techniques for revealing the characteristics of the last ‘pole of ignorance’,” says Christine Dow, of the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center in the US. “The potential discovery of large canyons and lakes could have a big impact on our understanding of tectonic and hydrological evolution in this part of the ice sheet.”

Source:  Andy Coghlan, New Scientist