Satellite Reveals Remnants of Ancient Continents Under Antarctica's Ice

ESA's GOCE satellite
The European Space Agency's GOCE satellite helped provide the data that detected the continents. ESA

Scientists have uncovered the remnants of lost continents hidden under the ice sheets of Antarctica, revealing clues about how the continent broke away from the supercontinent in the past and how ice sheets may move in the future.

Using gravity-mapping satellite data and seismological information, researchers pieced together features of Earth's lithosphere, which consists of the solid crust of the planet and the section of the molten mantle beneath it.

A team of researchers from Kiel University and the British Antarctic Survey (BAS) used data from the European Space Agency's Gravity field and Ocean Circulation Explorer (GOCE) satellite, which orbited Earth from March 2009 to November 2013. Their work was published in the journal Scientific Reports.

"These gravity images are revolutionizing our ability to study the least understood continent on Earth, Antarctica," said co-author Fausto Ferraccioli, science leader of geology and geophysics at BAS, said in a statement.

Researchers used the GOCE data to create 3D images of the Earth, with a particular focus on areas of Antarctica buried deep beneath heavy layers of ice. The images reveal the separation of Antarctica from the ancient supercontinent Gondwana, which was once part of an even larger supercontinent known as Pangaea.

The video above, which was produced by the researchers, reconstructs the separation of Antarctica from Gondwana.

Writing that the "thick ice sheet cover and the remoteness of Antarctica make geological and geophysical investigations particularly challenging," researchers were able to uncover more about this baffling continent.

"In East Antarctica, we see an exciting mosaic of geological features that reveal fundamental similarities and differences between the crust beneath Antarctica and other continents it was joined to until 160 million years ago," said Ferraccioli.

The findings also showed how West Antarctica has a thinner crust and lithosphere compared to East Antarctica, which is made of old cratons (older and stable parts of the lithosphere) and younger orogens (mountainous crumpled continental plates).

Gravity gradient shape index map of Antarctica draped on bedrock topography, derived from GOCE data.
GOCE data shows the difference in crust and lithosphere between West and East Antarctica. Kiel University/BAS

Researchers say these findings give clues about how Antarctica's structure impacts how ice sheets move and how regions on the continent will rebound as ice melts.

"It is exciting to see that direct use of the gravity gradients, which were measured for the first time ever with GOCE, leads to a fresh independent look inside Earth – even below a thick sheet of ice," says ESA's GOCE mission scientist Roger Haagmans.

"It also provides context of how continents were possibly connected in the past before they drifted apart owing to plate motion."