'Frozen in time' landscape discovered under Antarctic ice

Discovered beneath the Antarctic ice for millions of years, a massive, secret landscape of hills and valleys sculpted by ancient rivers was "frozen in time" by scientists on Tuesday.

The British and American experts cautioned that although this environment, larger than Belgium, may have been unspoiled for over 34 million years, human-caused global warming may jeopardize its integrity.

Lead author of the research Stewart Jamieson, a glaciologist at Durham University in the UK, told AFP that "no one has laid eyes on it."

Jamieson went on, "What's exciting is that it's been hiding there in plain sight," stressing that the researchers had just employed a novel strategy rather than fresh data.

According to Jamieson, the region underneath the East Antarctic Ice Sheet is not as well-known as the surface of Mars.

Using a method known as radio-echo sounding, a plane overhead sends radio waves into the ice and then analyzes the echoes to "see" underneath it.

However, given that Antarctica is larger than Europe, accomplishing this throughout the continent would be extremely difficult.

Thus, more than two kilometers (1.6 miles) below the surface, the researchers "traced out the valleys and ridges" using already-existing satellite pictures, according to Jamieson.

He continued, saying that the rippling ice surface is a "ghost image" that softly falls over these sharper characteristics.

Combined with radio-echo sounding data, a picture of a river-carved terrain resembling portions of the Earth's surface today, with steeply sided hills and dipping valleys, became visible.

Jamieson likened the scene to the Snowdonia region of northern Wales, saying it was like gazing out the window of a long-haul flight and seeing a mountainous country below.

The region, which covers 32,000 square kilometers (12,000 square miles), was formerly home to woods, trees, and maybe even some wildlife.

However, Jamieson stated that it was "frozen in time" when the ice appeared.

It is impossible to pinpoint the exact date when sunlight last reached this secret realm, but the researchers are certain that it was at least 14 million years ago.

According to Jamieson, his "hunch" is that it was last exposed when Antarctica initially froze over, more than 34 million years ago.

The team thinks there may be more ancient landscapes beneath the Antarctic ice that have not yet been uncovered, as some of them had previously discovered a lake the size of a city.

climate risk

The study's authors suggested that their recently found environment may be threatened by global warming.

They said in the journal Nature Communications that "we are now on course to develop atmospheric conditions similar to those that prevailed" between 14 and 34 million years ago, when the temperature was three to seven degrees Celsius (approximately seven to 13 degrees Fahrenheit) higher than it is now.

Jamieson noted that any potential exposure would be "a long way off" because the terrain is hundreds of kilometers inland from the ice's edge.

He also said that there remained hope because melting ice during earlier warmer occurrences, such the Pliocene epoch, three to 4.5 million years ago, did not reveal the terrain.

However, he added, it's still unknown what might trigger a "runaway reaction" of melting.

The report was published the day after experts issued a warning, stating that even if global warming mitigation goals are met, the melting of the nearby West Antarctic Ice Sheet is expected to pick up significant speed in the upcoming decades.