It's Bottoms Up For Antarctic Ice Sheets Antarctica is like an amazing frozen layer cake, made from millions of layers of snow that gradually turns to ice. But a new study finds that some ice on the continent is actually forming from water flowing beneath the glaciers — a discovery that upends the way researchers thought about Antarctic ice formation.
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It's Bottoms Up For Antarctic Ice Sheets

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It's Bottoms Up For Antarctic Ice Sheets

It's Bottoms Up For Antarctic Ice Sheets

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Here's NPR's Richard Harris.

RICHARD HARRIS: This surprising discovery stems from a research blitz to Antarctica a few years back. Robin Bell, from the Lamont Doherty Earth Observatory, was part of the scientific gold-rush called the International Polar Year.

ROBIN BELL: We went to the middle of East Antarctica, because this was the last unexplored mountain range on our planet.

HARRIS: This is actually a mountain range of rock, buried under up to two miles of solid ice. They flew over this area with airplanes equipped with lasers, radars and other sensors that allowed them to peer through the ice to the rock that lay far below.

BELL: First, we were just surprised at how rough the mountains were underneath.

HARRIS: Lots of the bedrock in Antarctica is flat and boring, but certainly not here. And as Bell took a close look at her radar images of the ice piled high atop the mountains, she noticed some extraordinary strange features: blobs that she describes as beehives, or maybe jelly- donuts.

BELL: Turned out that these big blobs underneath the ice sheet were ice that had frozen on from the bottom of the ice sheet, that there was water moving around underneath the ice sheet and it had frozen back onto the bottom of the ice sheet.

HARRIS: Bell says scientists have known for over a decade that liquid water forms under Antarctica, and that it flows from one place to another.

BELL: But now this is actually showing that the (unintelligible) water can actually change the overlying ice sheet.

HARRIS: That discovery is published online by Science magazine. It changes the way scientists think about the processes that shape Antarctica. And Bell says it could also complicate plans to study the Earth's past climate. That's because scientists drill down through the layers of ice to study the air bubbles from ancient air that's trapped inside the ice.

BELL: You think of each layer in the ice sheet being a history book and telling us what was going on the planet at that time.

HARRIS: But that record is destroyed when the ice melts and refreezes, as Bell has found along this mountain crest.

BELL: Unfortunately, these books have been erased.

HARRIS: That's not a disaster. Kendrick Taylor, at the Desert Research Institute in Reno, Nevada, notes that there have already been several amazing ice-cores taken from Antarctica.

KENDRICK TAYLOR: We currently have records of greenhouse gases that go back to about 800,000 years. And we would like to extend that record further back in time, so we can see how changes in greenhouse gases influenced climate for, oh, say the last 1.5 million years.

HARRIS: But as fate would have it, that super-long record is most likely to be found in the exact mountain range where Robin Bell has now discovered ice melting and reforming from below. Taylor says several research teams, including one from China and another from the U.S., have been interested in drilling there, despite the considerable challenges.

TAYLOR: It's almost like working on another planet out there.

HARRIS: Chinese scientists already have a running start. They've staked out a camp along the flank of the mountain, Taylor says.

TAYLOR: And they have a little of a challenge. If they drill at the logistically convenient spot, which is their camp, they won't be drilling at the optimal spot for the ice core. So how they're going to address that challenge, we really don't know.

HARRIS: Richard Harris, NPR News.



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