Fathoming Antarctica

Lakes hidden under the Antarctic ice sheet may play a role in its stability. 


ON A BRISK April day in a Colorado Springs lecture hall, geophysicist Robin Bell showed the audience three photographs of water. The first was a placid lake dotted with sailboats. The second was a gushing river. The third was not of a body of water at all, but a thin film of water trapped under a melting ice cube. Bell said, “My colleagues and I wonder whether subglacial lakes in Antarctica look like any of these–minus the sailboats, of course,” and drew a collective chuckle from the audience.

Bell, a senior research scientist at Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory in New York, has a knack for inspiring an audience to pause and consider the seemingly inconceivable. Just what does a body of water look like when it is buried under a two-mile thick slab of ice? “Is it calm or turbulent down there?” she asked. “Or is it a very thin film of water, like what would form between an ice cube and your warm hand? What does that tell us about processes happening deep under the Antarctic ice?”

In the last fifty years, researchers like Bell have found unexpected clues about what lies beneath the barren ice desert of Antarctica. One of the most exciting finds has been the detection of subglacial lakes scattered underneath the East and West Antarctic ice sheets. Bell suspects that these mysterious, hidden lakes are key to understanding the interplay between ice sheets and the world’s oceans.

Originally published in  Sensing Our Planet: NASA Earth Science Research Features. Read the full story here.

Image courtesy Michael Studinger/NASA.