Scientists showed how Antarctica looks without ice

Christopher Davidson
November 11, 2018

Based on the gravitational information pulled from it, we now have a new picture of what Antarctica looks like beneath the ice-including previously hidden continents. To expand these views, an worldwide group of scientists using satellite images revealed hidden from the structure of the continent.

"These gravity images are revolutionizing our ability to study the least understood continent on Earth, Antarctica", said study author Fausto Ferraccioli in a press release.

They were taken by the long-dead Gravity field and Ocean Circulation Explorer (GOCE), which plummeted into Earth after it ran out of fuel in 2013.

"GOCE also shows us fundamental similarities and unexpected differences between the Antarctic lithosphere and other continents, to which it was joined until 160 million years ago", adds Dr Ferraccioli.

According to ESA, Antarctica and Australia remained linked as recently as 55 million years ago, despite the landmass splitting about 130 years ago.

Through the remote location and large layer of ice to determine the geological characteristics of the Antarctic is hard, so scientists have used GOCE satellite, which from 2009 to 2013 collected data on the gravitational field, including in the areas of Antarctica.

A team of scientists used GOCE readings to map out the movements of Earth's tectonic plates under Antarctica.

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By combining the GOCE evidence from seismological data, the researchers were able to create a 3D map of the earth's lithosphere consisting of crust and molten mantle. That lithosphere includes mountain ranges, ocean backs, and rocky zones called cratons - the leftovers of ancient continents embedded in continents as we know them today.

GOCE's new curvature images help unveil the difference in lithospheric structure between the dense craton composite of East Antarctica and the rift system of West Antarctica.

It orbited our planet for over four years, from March 2009 to November 2013.

During that period it got within 140 miles of Earth's surface - unusually low for a satellite - to maximise the accuracy of its instruments. During the past year of its mission, as it was running out of fuel, operators dropped the satellite to just 158 miles above the ground to get even better readings before GOCE burned up.

Three weeks later, on 11 November, the satellite disintegrated in the lower atmosphere.

Rather than just telling an interesting story, however, these findings could help climatologists understand how Antarctica's continental structure is influencing the behaviour of ice sheets and how rapidly Antarctica's regions will rebound in response to melting ice. In a 24-second animation clip that depicts the last 200 million years, scientists portrayed how ancient continents, which once made up the supercontinent Gondwana, were connected in the past and how they drifted apart due to plate tectonics.

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