The ice sheets of Antarctica could be hiding the remains of a long-lost continent, according to satellite data collected by the European Space Agency (ESA). Research published in Nature Scientific Reports used information gathered by the Gravity field and Ocean Circulation Explorer (GOCE) mission, a four year satellite project to measure the pull of Earth’s gravity, which orbited the planet from March 2009 to November 2013.
Researchers are still digging through all of the data produced by the GOCE mission, which is how the team from Kiel University in Germany and the British Antarctic Survey were able to spot shapes beneath the Antarctic ice. They combined the GOCE data with seismological data to create a 3D map of the crust beneath the Antarctic ice sheet. By using data on gravity gradients, they were able to look beneath the thick sheet of ice which covers Antarctica and to see the Earth’s crust beneath.
They found fractured layers of the planet’s crust around Antarctica which resemble the crust near to coastlines in other parts of the world, suggesting that these coastlines used to match up. It is speculated that the cratons, which are an ancient part of the Earth’s crust, used to be connected to other continents as part of the supercontinent Pangea. In East Antarctica, the gravity data shows a similarity between the crust there and the crust in Australia and India, indicating that these areas used to be connected. By contrast, West Antarctica has a thinner crust with no cratons, suggesting that it must have been connected elsewhere.
These findings are interesting not only for geologists but also for our understanding of the history of the planet as a whole. The continents on our planet were likely joined as the single continent Pangea up until 160 million years ago when they started to fragment and form the continents that we know today. The findings also have a modern relevance, as they inform understanding of how ice sheets behave and how Antarctic regions will respond to rising sea temperatures and melting ice.
You can see a visualization of how plate tectonics formed the Antarctic region and how Antarctica became separated from Australia and India in the video below: