What Does Antarctica Look Like Under the Ice?

by Jason Major on June 7, 2013

New topography map of Antarctica by the British Antarctic Survey and NASA better reveal what lies beneath its ice. (NASA/GSFC)

New topography map of Antarctica by the British Antarctic Survey and NASA reveals the rocky landscape under its ice. (NASA/GSFC)

Although it sits isolated at the “bottom of the world” Antarctica is one of the most influential continents on Earth, affecting weather, climate, and ocean current patterns over the entire planet. But Antarctica is also one of the most enigmatic landmasses too, incredibly remote, extremely harsh, and covered by a layer of ice over 2 km thick. And as Earth’s global temperature continues to climb steadily higher, the future of ice in Antarctica — a continent half again as large as the contiguous United States — is a big concern for scientists… but in order to know exactly how its ice will behave to changing conditions, they need to know what’s under it.

This is where the British Antarctic Survey — using data gathered by NASA’s ICESat and Operation IceBridge missions — comes in, giving us a better view of what lies beneath the southern continent’s frozen veil.

A new dataset called Bedmap2 gives a clearer picture of Antarctica from the ice surface down to the bedrock below. Bedmap2 is a significant improvement on the previous collection of Antarctic data — known as Bedmap — that was produced more than 10 years ago. The product was a result of work led by the British Antarctic Survey, where researchers compiled decades worth of geophysical measurements, such as surface elevation measurements from NASA’s Ice, Cloud and Land Elevation Satellite (ICESat) and ice thickness data collected by Operation IceBridge.

Bedmap2, like the original Bedmap, is a collection of three datasets—surface elevation, ice thickness and bedrock topography. Both Bedmap and Bedmap2 are laid out as grids covering the entire continent, but with a tighter grid spacing Bedmap2 includes many surface and sub-ice features too small to be seen in the previous dataset. Additionally, the extensive use of GPS data in more recent surveys improves the precision of the new dataset.

Improvements in resolution, coverage and precision will lead to more accurate calculations of ice volume and potential contribution to sea level rise.

Ice sheet researchers use computer models to simulate how ice sheets will respond to changes in ocean and air temperatures. An advantage of these simulations is that they allow testing of many different climate scenarios, but the models are limited by how accurate the data on ice volume and sub-ice terrain are.

Only the tips of many of Antarctica's mountains are visible above thousands of feet of ice. (Oct. 2012 IceBridge photo. Credit: NASA / Christy Hansen)

Only the tips of many of Antarctica’s mountains are visible above thousands of feet of ice. (Oct. 2012 IceBridge photo. Credit: NASA / Christy Hansen)

“In order to accurately simulate the dynamic response of ice sheets to changing environmental conditions, such as temperature and snow accumulation, we need to know the shape and structure of the bedrock below the ice sheets in great detail,” said Michael Studinger, IceBridge project scientist at NASA Goddard.

Knowing what the bedrock looks like is important for ice sheet modeling because features in the bed control the ice’s shape and affect how it moves. Ice will flow faster on a downhill slope, while an uphill slope or bumpy terrain can slow an ice sheet down or even hold it in place temporarily. “The shape of the bed is the most important unknown, and affect how ice can flow,” said Nowicki. “You can influence how honey spreads on your plate, by simply varying how you hold your plate.” The vastly improved bedrock data included in Bedmap2 should provide the level of detail needed for models to be realistic.

Bedmap2 data of Antarctica's bedrock. Verical elevation has been exaggerated by 17x. (NASA/GSFC)

Bedmap2 data of Antarctica’s bedrock. Verical elevation has been exaggerated by 17x. (NASA/GSFC)

“It will be an important resource for the next generation of ice sheet modelers, physical oceanographers and structural geologists,” said Peter Fretwell, BAS scientist and lead author.

The BAS’ work was published recently in the journal The Cryosphere. Read more on the original release by George Hale here.

Source: NASA Earth


A graphic designer in Rhode Island, Jason writes about space exploration on his blog Lights In The Dark, Discovery News, and, of course, here on Universe Today. Ad astra!

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