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Scientists discover prehistoric landscape hidden beneath the Antarctic ice

Researchers have unearthed a relic from an age when the now icy continent of Antarctica teemed with river networks and lush vegetation. (CREDIT: Creative Commons)


Beneath the vast, frigid expanse of the East Antarctic Ice Sheet, a scientific breakthrough has unearthed a relic from an age when the now icy continent of Antarctica teemed with river networks and lush vegetation.

This groundbreaking discovery, spearheaded by Stewart Jamieson and his team of glaciologists at Durham University, not only paints a vivid portrait of a prehistoric Antarctica but also offers a critical tool for predicting the continent's response to contemporary climate challenges.


A Subterranean Odyssey: Probing the Past Through Ice

The East Antarctic Ice Sheet, a colossal expanse of ice spanning over 10 million square kilometers, has veiled a landscape millions of years old from the inquisitive eyes of science.

The research team have mapped out hidden mountain ranges, canyon systems and lakes beneath the ice in Antarctica.  (CREDIT: Durham University)

But now, thanks to satellite technology, researchers have pierced through this icy shroud, revealing a terrain shaped by ancient rivers, now silently entombed under nearly two kilometers of glacial ice.


"It's like uncovering a time capsule," explains Jamieson, whose life's work has focused on the intimate dance between the Antarctic landscape and the ice sheets that dominate it. "We've had a longtime interest in, effectively, the shape of the land beneath the ice sheet in Antarctica."

The profound implications of Jamieson's research lie in its potential to explain the ancient past and forecast the future. By reading the landscape buried beneath the ice, scientists can decipher the tale of the East Antarctic Ice Sheet, which has been a persistent and defining feature of the continent for over 34 million years.


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Satellite Sleuthing: RADARSAT Reveals Hidden Terrain

The key to unlocking Antarctica's secrets lay in the innovative use of satellite observations. The Canadian satellite constellation RADARSAT, which can discern subtle irregularities in the ice surface that betray the contours below, has proven instrumental in this endeavor.

"We're trying to do is identify where we can really see an obvious picture in the land beneath the ice, and map it out," Jamieson elaborates on the process.


Through RADARSAT's sophisticated imaging, the team was able to detect an extensive pre-glacial landscape—a fossilized geological feature providing a snapshot of the Earth's configuration more than 34 million years ago. This landscape, roughly the size of Wales, offers an unprecedented look at an Antarctica that once basked in a warmer climate, flourishing with vegetation, long before the advent of its current ice-clad epoch.

The Canadian satellite constellation RADARSAT-2, which can discern subtle irregularities in the ice surface that betray the contours below, has proven instrumental in this endeavor. (CREDIT: Creative Commons)

The terrain's survival through eons beneath such an immense weight of ice suggests its remarkable antiquity. "The implication is that this must be a very old landscape that was carved by rivers before the ice sheet itself grew," Jamieson explains. "That's why we can say that the landscape itself is likely older than 34 million years."


This period corresponds to a time when dinosaurs roamed a verdant Antarctica, which was then part of the supercontinent Gondwana. Even after Gondwana's breakup, the continent sustained a rich tapestry of life until it succumbed to glaciation around 20 million years ago.

Inferred evolution of the ancient landscape. a Original fluvial land surface; b Gondwana break-up activates pre-existing tectonic structures, causing drainage re-organisation; c Local warm-based ice forms on the uplands and incises local-scale glacial valleys; d Ice expansion towards continental-scale ice sheet with cold-based ice rapidly developed over highlands, and warm-based ice steering through and eroding the intervening structurally-controlled valleys so they become fjords; e Continental-scale ice with cold-based ice on the highlands and continental-scale ice flowing slowly over the region, largely ignoring topography. (CREDIT: Nature Communications)

The true value of this discovery lies not merely in its fascinating revelations about Earth's prehistoric past but also in its implications for our present and future. The East Antarctic Ice Sheet, known for its sensitivity to climatic oscillations, acts as a bellwether for how rising global temperatures could reshape the polar regions.


Jamieson and his team are poised to extract more granular details about the terrain using remote-sensing techniques, aiming to reconstruct the ice sheet's evolution and, by extension, anticipate its future behavior.

Surface elevation of the Antarctic Ice Sheet from the Reference Elevation Model of Antarctica68. The black line marks the present-day grounding line74; pale areas are floating ice shelves. (CREDIT: Nature Communications)

"Understanding how this massive sheet might respond to human-driven climate change is a pressing concern," Jamieson asserts. The team’s research is pivotal in this regard, as the EAIS could be significantly impacted by both climatic and oceanic warming trends.


Bridging Eras: From Prehistoric Rivers to Modern Climates

The research conducted by Jamieson and his colleagues epitomizes the power of modern technology to bridge millions of years, connecting the dots between the prehistoric landscapes and today's climate dynamics.

Characteristics of the subglacial highlands and troughs of ‘Highland A’. (CREDIT: Nature Communications)

The sophisticated analysis of RADARSAT data serves as a time machine, allowing scientists to visualize the lush riverine networks that once coursed through a land now locked under ice.


Their work underscores a critical message: Earth's past, present, and future are deeply intertwined. The geological imprints of ancient Antarctica hold the keys to understanding current environmental changes and forecasting the global impact of human-driven climate change.

Valley and ridge planforms (lines) identified in ice surface imagery compared with locations of topographic ‘highs’ (ridges) and ‘lows’ (valleys) identified from RES survey data (points). The background shows the RADARSAT ice surface imagery. (CREDIT: Nature Communications)

As humanity grapples with these environmental challenges, the insights gleaned from the buried landscapes of Antarctica will undoubtedly play a vital role in informing global strategies for climate resilience and adaptation.


The discovery of Antarctica's ancient river networks is a testament to human curiosity and ingenuity. It serves as a poignant reminder of our planet's dynamism and the ongoing transformations that shape it over millennia.

For scientists and laypersons alike, these findings not only illuminate the shadowy corners of Earth's distant past but also shine a guiding light on the pathways that lie ahead in our quest to understand and mitigate the effects of a warming world.

By piecing together the intricate puzzle of Antarctica's climatic history, researchers are helping to construct a clearer picture of our planet's climatic future.


As the world continues to experience the profound effects of climate change, the knowledge contained within Antarctica's icy depths will be invaluable in the efforts to sustain the delicate balance of our planet's ecosystems.

For more science news stories check out our New Discoveries section at The Brighter Side of News.


Note: Materials provided above by The Brighter Side of News. Content may be edited for style and length.


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