Antarctica’s mystery mountain range

What mountain range is as high and long as the European Alps, but has never been seen by human eyes?

The Gamburtsev Mountains in East Antarctica were discovered in 1958 by the third Soviet Antarctic expedition, but no one has ever seen them.  They are covered with over 600 meters of snow and ice.

It is thought that glaciers running off the mountains created the East Antarctic Ice Sheet about 35 million years ago, but scientists are not sure why the mountains, which still present sharp profiles to ice-penetrating radar, were not worn away in the process.  The Gamburtsev are old, perhaps up to 250 million years, and are the uplifted remains of an even older range that formed in the collision of two tectonic plates that formed the ancient super-continent Rodinia.

The hidden mountains were the subject of a multinational research mission in 2007-2009 called AGAP.  Scientists and support staff from Australia, Canada, China, Germany, Japan, the United Kingdom, and the United States set up two base camps for use by aircraft with radar to map the Gamburtsev.  The information gained on ice movement through the mountains will be used to refine climate change models and simulations of Antarctica’s future as the planet warms.

Dr Rob DeConto from the University of Massachusetts, Amherst explains:

“The Gamburtsev story is extremely relevant because in the next century we will probably exceed the levels of CO2 that in our models triggered the growth of the ice sheets.  We don’t think the ice sheet will melt away at the same level of carbon dioxide that it grew; there is delay in the system. But it is important that we get new data on the Gamburtsevs so we can refine our models.”

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