In 1908, Ernest Shackleton’s legendary Nimrod team was making its way toward the South Pole when the men were startled by something unexpected: The sound of liquid water, roaring across the frozen wasteland toward the sea.
A new analysis led by scientists at Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory is the first to reveal a vast network of drainage basins, including streams, channels, ponds, and even waterfalls, dispersed across the continent of Antarctica.
“There were a few hints of streams here and there, but we had no idea they were quite so widespread, or quite so large, or that they persisted for so long,” Jonathan Kingslake, a glaciologist at Columbia University and lead author on the study published today in Nature, told Gizmodo.
In a companion study also published today in Nature, glaciologist Robin Bell, along with Kingslake and others, explore how drainage networks might actually be helping the Nansen Ice Shelf, a site traversed by Shackleton’s Nimrod expedition, and a few years later by the Northern Party team of Captain Robert Falcon Scott’s British Antarctic Expedition, hold itself together.
The complex physics governing the flow of ice and water off Antarctica may sound arcane, but it has major consequences when you consider that the entire continent contains enough frozen water to raise global sea levels by 200 feet, putting coastal cities like Miami and New York deep underwater.
To that end, Kingslake and his colleagues turned to Landsat satellite records and aerial photographs, using these two datasets to build a first-of-its-kind record of the continent’s drainage networks, extending all the way back to 1947.