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Frozen Mountains Measured

on February 28, 2009

A mountain range the size of the European Alps—larger than anyone expected—has finally been measured.

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How could people have missed such huge mountains for so long? The answer is simple: the range lies in Antarctica deep beneath the ice. Though originally discovered in the 1950s, they have only recently been measured.

Scientists used aircraft with ice-penetrating radar, along with a network of seismometers, to determine the size and shape of the range. The Gamburtsevs, as the mountains are known, are not only similar in size to the Alps; they also appear similar in aspect, with “very sharp peaks and valleys,” explained Fausto Ferraccioli of the British Antarctic Survey. Scientists are eager to drill through the ice, as one radar survey revealed liquid water—warmed by the earth—deep below the ice in the valleys below.

But how did the mountains get there? Up until scientists discovered the range last century, the prevailing wisdom was that the Antarctic interior would be essentially flat. “It all adds to the mystery—from the tectonic perspective of how these mountains were created,” Ferraccioli said, “and from the glacial history perspective of how the East Antarctic ice sheet was formed and didn’t erode these peaks.”

The range lies in Antarctica deep beneath the ice.

Ferraccioli told Reuters that “the mountains would probably have been ground down almost flat if the ice sheet had formed slowly. But the presence of jagged peaks might mean the ice formed quickly, burying a landscape under up to 4 km (2.5 miles) of ice.” Rapid ice formation—could that fit into a catastrophic Ice Age model?

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