Environment

Expedition Sets Off for Antarctic Mountains That "Shouldn't Be There"

80beatsBy Eliza StricklandOct 15, 2008 5:12 PM

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An international team of bundled-up scientists will soon set off for Antarctica's interior in a quest to learn about the continent's most massive and mysterious mountain range; although the Gamburtsev mountains are as high and mighty as Europe's Alps, even the tallest peak is buried beneath 2 miles of ice. Now, during the southern hemisphere's summer, the researchers will investigate how the Gamburtsevs formed in a place where scientists say no mountains should be. American researcher Robin Bell, who will be making the trek, explains that there are two "easy" ways to form mountains, and neither makes sense in Antarctica:

"One is colliding continents, but after they collide they tend to erode; and the last collision was 500-million-plus years ago.... The other way is a hotspot, [with volcanoes punching through the crust] like in Hawaii; but there's no good evidence for underneath the ice sheet being that hot. I like to say it's rather like being an archaeologist and opening up a tomb in a pyramid and finding an astronaut sitting inside. It shouldn't be there" [BBC News].

The Gamburtsevs were first detected by a Russian survey mission in the 1950s, but little research has since been done on the mountains due to the challenges of working in such extreme conditions. Researchers will sleep in field camps beneath the midnight sun and will be exposed to temperatures as low as -40 Fahrenheit. The team will use surface and airborne instruments to probe the depths.

Ice-penetrating radar, gravitational and magnetic sensors, and seismic technology will be used during the 2½-half [sic] month project to build a three-dimensional picture of the hidden peaks [Sydney Morning Herald].

In another part of the mission, researchers will look for sites where they can drill down to take samples of the continent's ancient ice. Scientists can study the bubbles of carbon dioxide and methane trapped in the ice, and can determine past temperatures and climate conditions by the concentration of gases and the ice's chemical composition. British researcher Fausto Ferraccioli says:

"..we will hunt for ice that is more than 1.2 million years old. Locked in this ancient ice is a detailed record of past climate change that will assist in making better predictions for our future" [Telegraph].

Related Content: 80beats: Who Ruled the Triassic Food Chain? A Crocamander (or Is It “Frogodile”?) 80beats: Fossils of Shrimp-Like Creatures Point to a Warmer Antarctica in the Distant Past DISCOVER: The Ground Zero of Climate Change, a feature on Antarctica's Whillans Ice Stream

Image: flickr/elisfanclub

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