NASA uncovers hidden system of mysteriously draining lakes under Antarctica

Scientists have found two new lakes buried deep beneath the Antarctic Ice Sheet. 

These hidden gems of frigid water are half of an enormous community of ever-changing lakes hidden beneath 1.2 to 2.5 miles (2 to 4 kilometers) of ice on the southernmost continent. These lakes fill and drain time and again in largely mysterious cycles which will affect how briskly the ice sheet strikes and the way and the place meltwater reaches the Southern Ocean. This movement, in flip, can change the currents within the Southern Ocean and probably have an effect on ocean circulation worldwide. 

“It’s not just the ice sheet we’re talking about,” examine chief Matthew Siegfried, a geophysicist on the Colorado School of Mines, said in a statement. “We’re really talking about a water system that is connected to the whole Earth system.”

 Related: Photos of Antarctica: The ice-covered bottom of the world 

Hidden water

The lakes sit on the backside of the ice sheet, the place the ice meets the rocky Antarctic continent. Unlike in Greenland, the place meltwater flows from the ice floor by way of crevasses and holes referred to as moulins, Antarctica’s lakes type from beneath the ice, in all probability because of this of strain, friction and maybe geothermal warmth. 

This water system was largely invisible till the appearance of NASA’s ICESat mission in 2003. The ICESat satellite tv for pc used lasers to exactly measure the elevation of Antarctic ice. In 2007, Scripps Institution of Oceanography glaciologist Helen Amanda Fricker related the elevation modifications measured by ICESat to the dynamics of the lakes deep beneath the ice floor. As the lakes drain and fill, the ice above rises and falls, providing hints as to what’s taking place beneath. 

Fricker’s breakthrough opened up the chance of monitoring the lake system over time. ICESat, nonetheless, collected information for under six years. Its European Space Agency equal, CryoSat-2, collected comparable information beginning in 2010 however over a broader space and with much less precision. In September 2018, NASA launched a brand new satellite tv for pc, ICESat-2, which collects the highest-precision information but. 

“ICESat-2 is like putting on your glasses after using ICESat: The data are such high precision that we can really start to map out the lake boundaries on the surface,” Siegfried mentioned. 

A dynamic system

In the brand new examine, Siegfried and Fricker mixed information from ICESat, CryoSat-2 and ICESat-2 to hint modifications within the subglacial lake system from October 2003 to July 2020. They targeted on three areas with good satellite tv for pc protection and recognized lively lakes: the boundary between the Mercer and Whillans ice streams in West Antarctica; the decrease MacAyeal Ice Stream, additionally in West Antarctica; and the higher Academy Glacier in East Antarctica. 

At the Mercer and Whillans boundary, the researchers discovered two new lakes, which they dubbed the Lower Conway Subglacial Lake and the Lower Mercer Subglacial Lake. They additionally discovered that what was considered one lake under the MacAyeal ice stream was really two. 


Over time, these lakes skilled main change. The lakes beneath the Mercer and Whillans ice stream boundary are presently present process their third interval of drainage in 17 years. Meanwhile, all of the lakes beneath the MacAyeal ice stream have adopted their very own patterns of draining and filling. The lowermost lake went by way of 4 fill-drain occasions in the course of the examine interval, every taking solely a couple of year to finish. The second lake drained between 2014 and 2015 and is presently filling up once more, whereas the third lake drained simply barely between 2016 and 2017. Meanwhile, the lakes beneath Academy Glacier drained between 2009 and 2018. 

All of these modifications are puzzle items in scientists’ understanding of the speed and route of Antarctica’s ice sheet movement. Already, researchers are discovering the hyperlinks between the under-ice lakes and the ocean: In January, a examine co-authored by Fricker discovered that the drainage of one lake on the Amery Ice Shelf in East Antarctica flushed as a lot as 198 billion gallons (750 billion liters) into the ocean in solely three days, Live Science reported on the time.

The new examine was printed July 7 within the journal Geophysical Research Letters.

Originally printed on Live Science

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