Rivers Flow Beneath Antarctic Ice

A British team of scientists revealed an interesting hypothesis this week. Scientists at the Natural Environmental Research Council and the Centre for Polar Observation and Modelling announced the discovery of massive rivers of liquid water buried deep beneath the Antarctic ice sheet. The rivers run beneath the various lakes that are known to exist under the ice on the frozen continent.

The rivers are ephemeral subglacial phenomena, briefly existing when conditions are right. The lakes exist because of the intense pressure generated by the weight of miles of ice. Occasionally the pressure becomes too much, and the lake pops like a champagne cork, unleashing a flow of water to the next lake which can run for several hundred miles.

The evidence for this discovery is compelling. Between 1996 and 1998, the ice above one subglacial lake on Dome C in eastern Antarctica fell three meters in 16 months, a drastic change that normally would take decades. At the same time in two neighboring areas 290 kilometers away, also above lakes, the ice rose by over a meter.

The only explanation the scientists could find to explain this change was that the water suddenly rushed out of one lake and ran beneath the ice sheet to the neighboring lakes.

The lake that lost the water is 600 square kilometers, about the size of Lake Tahoe. The researchers calculated that the flow of water was probably comparable to a major river, specifically the Thames in England.

It is possible some of these subglacial floods even burst forth upon the surface and reached the ocean in the past. Ice free areas of Antarctica show evidence of past floods, deep trenches carved into the rock by moving water. These floods could be the source.

This sounds a lot like what could be happening on Mars. There are certainly signs of past Martian floods, and hints of massive ice packs buried beneath a layer of dust. I wonder if liquid water could be flowing beneath the ice on the red planet as well?