Ice Sheet Holds Hidden Lake

A group of nine scientists dressed for polar research pose in front of a propeller plane on the ice
Scientists from ICECAP-2, an international research collaboration that mapped the last unexplored regions of East Antarctica, with one of the aircraft used to survey the ice sheet in 2019. Shuai Yan (fourth from right), a graduate student at The University of Texas of Austin Jackson School of Geosciences, used data from the survey to locate and characterize Lake Snow Eagle, a subglacial lake. Credit: Shuai Yan/UT Jackson School of Geosciences

Researchers from the University of Texas Institute for Geophysics (UTIG) have discovered a city-size lake buried beneath the East Antarctic Ice Sheet. They named their discovery Lake Snow Eagle after their research plane that carried the ice-penetrating radar which enabled the lake’s discovery.

Showing up as a bright radar reflection during an aerial survey, the lake may contain a record of the ice sheet since its earliest beginnings.

The map is marked with Lake Snow Eagle in the far east of the continent.
Lake Snow Eagle lies in a canyon in East Antarctica covered by a miles-thick ice sheet. The lake was discovered by a research team led by The University of Texas at Austin using ice penetrating radar and other airborne geophysical instruments. Credit: University of Texas Institute for Geophysics

“This lake is likely to have a record of the entire history of the East Antarctic Ice Sheet, its initiation over 34 million years ago, as well as its growth and evolution across glacial cycles since then,” said Don Blankenship, a UTIG senior research scientist and co-author of a study on the lake.

The study was published in Geology in May 2022.The first hint that the lake and its host canyon existed emerged when scientists spotted a smooth depression on satellite images of the ice sheet. The researchers followed up with three years of aerial surveys over the site with ice penetrating radar and other sensors.

“I literally jumped when I first saw that bright radar reflection,” said lead author Shuai Yan, a graduate student at the Jackson School of Geosciences who was flight planner for the field research that investigated the lake.

The lake is about 30 miles long, 9 miles wide and 650 feet deep. The sediments at the bottom of the lake are 1,000 feet deep and might include river sediments older than the ice sheet itself.

Moving forward, the researchers said getting a sample of the lake’s sediments by drilling into it would fill big gaps in scientists’ understanding of Antarctica’s glaciation and provide vital information about the ice sheet’s possible demise from climate change.

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