Missing Antarctic Lakes Leave Scientists Baffled

A group of lakes suspected to exist beneath the Antarctic ice has mysteriously vanished. Scientists studying the patterns of ice movement in the area are left scratching their heads. The absence of the lakes makes explaining glacial behavior much more difficult, but scientists are determined to find answers.

Empty Pockets

According to satellite imagery used to track ice movement, scientists believed there to be a series of lakes hidden under the glaciers in East Antarctica. The data suggested the presence of four larger lakes and 11 smaller ones, but new radar imaging suggests otherwise. Only one of the suspected larger lakes appears to have any liquid in it, while the majority of the other ice chambers seem to be empty.

The glacier moving over the top of these empty pockets is called Recovery Glacier. Recovery is a calm glacier, meaning its movements are consistent and it isn’t undergoing any drastic changes at the moment. Scientists have taken an interest in this particular glacier because it has the potential to shift its nature in response to climate change. To better understand those changes, however, glaciologists need to know more about the mystery lakes below its mass.

The Power To Move The Earth

Glacial movement is typically lateral, that is, they tend to flow like rivers in one general direction unless their path is interrupted. Recovery Glacier flows from the Shackleton Range Mountains of inland Eastern Antarctica out to the Filchner Ice Shelf, which stops at the Weddell Sea. Vertical motion is what sticks out to scientists.

In other areas across the continent, the vertical movement of ice has been linked to the presence of underground lakes. In addition to holding vital clues about our planet’s climate history and helping us better understand where it might go in the future, each of these lakes is an isolated ecosystem. Studying them can help scientists better understand how life can survive under extreme conditions, which provides valuable information toward finding extraterrestrial life.

A Puzzling Conundrum

With the information from radar scans of the area underneath Recovery Glacier revealing nothing where scientists expected to find water, the vertical movement of the ice in the area is suddenly far more baffling. If there isn’t any water present in the chambers below the ice, glaciologists aren’t sure what could be causing the ground to rise and fall. To understand the impact of climate change on the glacier, scientists need to uncover precisely what those chambers hold.

Radar is a preferred method of learning what’s under the Antarctic ice, but its readings can be confounded by changes in the consistency of the ice. To determine what is truly going on, scientists plan to study the area using explosives. Detonating minor charges and analyzing the way the sound travels through the ground can reveal more accurately what’s beneath their feet. The current theory is that the empty pockets beneath Recovery Glacier fill and drain in a cycle. The next set of tests will hopefully provide answers.

While scientists are busy studying the structures under the ice in Antarctica, the continent’s underwater glaciers are melting at an alarming rate.