3 March, 2011 Press releases

Ice structures found among hidden Antarctic mountains

The discovery of numerous large ice structures within Antarctica’s Dome A region, the site of the buried ‘ghost mountains’, reveals new understanding about ice sheet growth and movement that is essential for predicting how the ice sheet may change as the Earth’s climate warms.

Reporting this week in the journal Science a six-nation group of scientists studying the Gamburtsev Subglacial Mountains describe how these remarkable structures form.  Typically ice sheets grow when layers of snow are deposited on the surface, but the researchers found startling new evidence of growth at the base. Widespread re-freezing of large volumes of water to the underside of the ice sheet modifies its structure. In some places this process can account for up to half the ice sheet’s thickness, and the growth caused by refreezing may be comparable to that occurring at the surface.

AGAP North Field Camp
AGAP North Field Camp.
The Antarctica’s Gamburstev Province (AGAP) project – one of the most ambitious, challenging and adventurous ?deep field? Antarctic missions of the International Polar Year – has captured the first clear picture of the mysterious mountain range discovered by Russian scientists 50 years ago. The Gamburtsev subglacial mountains are thought to be the birthplace of the vast East Antarctic Ice Sheet that covers 10 million km2 of our planet.

The enigmatic Gamburtsev Subglacial Mountains lie buried beneath as much as 3 km (two and a half miles) of ice. An international team mounted an ambitious field campaign to investigate the ice sheet and what lies beneath during the International Polar Year (2007-09).

Lead Author, Dr Robin Bell of Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory says,

“We usually think of ice sheets like cakes – one layer at a time added from the top. This is like someone injected a layer of frosting at the bottom – a really thick layer. Water has always been known to be important to ice sheet dynamics, but mostly as a lubricant. As ice sheets change, we want to predict how they will change. Our results show that models must include water beneath.”

Co-Author Dr Fausto Ferraccioli, from British Antarctic Survey says,

“This International Polar Year study provides a unique view on the interactions between subglacial water and ice sheet structure in East Antarctica. Understanding these interactions is critical for the search for the oldest ice and also to better comprehend subglacial environments and ice sheet dynamics. Incorporating these processes into models will enable more accurate predictions of ice sheet response to global warming and its impact on future sea-level rise”.

The refrozen structures form because the vast Antarctic ice sheet acts like blanket trapping geothermal heat from the Earth beneath. This heat, combined with the great pressure from the overlying ice allows ice to melt at the base. When under the ice this water can be pushed uphill, towards mountain ridges where the ice sheet is thinner. This thinner and colder ice refreezes the water, creating the spectacular structures observed close to the base of the ice sheet.

The researchers theorize that this process explains the re-frozen structures appearing at the heads of valleys beneath the ice sheet. This new ice at the base pushes older ice closer to the surface, making the ancient layered record of climate embedded in the ice easier for researchers to reach.

Bell continues…

“When we first saw these [refrozen] ice structures in the field, we thought they looked like beehives and were worried they were an error in the data. As they were seen on many lines, it became clear that they were real. We did not think that water moving through ancient river valleys beneath more than one mile of ice would alter the basic structure of the ice sheet.”

The refrozen ice accounts for up to 24% of the area of the ice sheet base around Dome A, the top of the East Antarctic ice sheet. The scientists suggest that this process has been going on since East Antarctica became encased in a large ice sheet 32 million years ago. Researchers now will now look into how refreezing affects the margins of the Antarctic and Greenland ice sheets, where the most rapid change is occurring.


Issued by British Antarctic Survey & Lamont-Doherty Press Offices

British Antarctic Survey media contact:

Athena Dinar, Tel: +44 (0)1223 221414; email: amdi@bas.ac.uk; Mobile: +44 07736 921693

Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory

David Funkhouser, Science Writer; T: 001 845-365-8708; M: 001 347-753-4816;

Email: dfunkhouser@ei.columbia.edu

Science contacts:

British Antarctic Survey

Dr Fausto Ferraccioli, Tel: +44 (0)1223 221577; email ffe@bas.ac.uk

Dr Tom Jordan, Tel: +44 (0)1223 221305; email tomj@bas.ac.uk

Dr Kathryn Rose, Tel: +44 (0)1223 221288; email kase@bas.ac.uk

Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory of Columbia University

Dr Robin Bell. Tel: 001 845 – 365 – 8827; email robinb@ldeo.columbia.edu

Stunning images from Antarctica and the AGAP project to illustrate this story can be downloaded from ftp://ftp.nerc-bas.ac.uk/pub/photo/GhostMountains

Notes for Editors

The paper – Widespread, Persistent Thickening of the East Antarctic Ice Sheet by Freezing from the Base – is published in Science by Robin Bell, T. Creyts, Indrani Das, Nicholas Frearson and Michael Wolovik from Lamont-Doherty, part of the Earth Institute at Columbia University; Fausto Ferraccioli, Hugh Corr, Thomas Jordan and Kathryn Rose of the British Antarctic Survey; David Braaten of the Center for Remote Sensing of Ice Sheets at Kansas University; Detlef Damaske of the Bundesanstalt fur Geowissenschaften und Rohstoffe in Germany; and Michael Studinger of the Goddard Earth Science and Technology Center at the University of Maryland and the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland.

For around two and a half months two science teams carried out an aerogeophysical survey of Antarctica’s Gamburtsev Province (AGAP). The British Antarctic Survey (BAS) – Australian Antarctic Division teams worked from one of the deep-field camps known as AGAP North.  The US-German-Japanese science teams worked from AGAP-South.

Further information about the project can be found at:



The work was funded by grants from the National Science Foundation and was launched in conjunction with the International Polar Year, an effort to study the Arctic and Antarctic spanning 2007-2009 and involving research by thousands of scientists from more than 60 nations. Support also came from the Natural Environment Research Council of Britain and the British Antarctic Survey, the Federal Institute for Geosciences and Resources in Germany and the Polar Research Institute of China.

British Antarctic Survey (BAS), a component of the Natural Environment Research Council, delivers world-leading interdisciplinary research in the Polar Regions.   Its skilled science and support staff based in Cambridge, Antarctica and the Arctic, work together to deliver research that underpins a productive economy and contributes to a sustainable world.   Its numerous national and international collaborations, leadership role in Antarctic affairs and excellent infrastructure help ensure that the UK maintains a world leading position.  BAS has over 450 staff and operates five research stations, two Royal Research Ships and five aircraft in and around Antarctica. www.antarctica.ac.uk

International Polar Year 2007–2009 was the largest coordinated international scientific effort for 50 years. Featuring more than 200 Arctic and Antarctic projects, IPY involved 50,000 people – including scientists, students and support staff – from more than 60 nations. Together, they set out to discover more about the Polar Regions and their critical influence on the rest of the planet.