Some 160 to 200 million years ago, Antarctica, Africa, South America, India and Australia split from Gondwana and slowly moved to their current locations. Left behind, deep beneath the ice of Antarctica, is the evidence that can be linked to the younger continents.
Unearthing the Secrets Beneath Antarctica’s Ice: Remnants of Lost Continents Discovered
A Window to Earth’s Geological History
While not the mythical Atlantis, the recent discovery of remnants of ancient continents beneath Antarctica’s thick ice sheets will undoubtedly reshape our understanding of Earth’s geological history. Researchers were able to glimpse the terrain beneath Antarctica’s ice using the European Space Agency’s gravity mapping satellite, uncovering a long-lost landscape scattered with cratons—large, stable blocks of Earth’s crust that are remnants of ancient continents.
Cratons: The Building Blocks of Continents
Cratons are part of Earth’s lithosphere, which encompasses the crust and upper mantle. They are typically found at the center of modern continental plates, and their study allows scientists to better comprehend our planet’s evolution throughout history and its ongoing development.
he discovery was made possible by the European Space Agency’s Gravity Field and Steady-State Ocean Circulation Explorer (GOCE) satellite, launched in 2009 to measure Earth’s gravity strength. The GOCE collected data until 2013, disintegrating near the Falkland Islands in the South Atlantic Ocean afterward. Fortunately, the wealth of data it gathered was saved for further analysis.
Mapping the Hidden World Beneath Antarctica
Researchers utilized the gravity mapping data recorded by GOCE to map the terrain beneath Antarctica’s ice, much like seafloor mapping. “These gravity images are revolutionizing our ability to study the least understood continent on Earth, Antarctica,” said co-author Fausto Ferraccioli, science leader of geology and geophysics at the British Antarctic Survey.
As detailed in the Journal Scientific Reports, the scientists employed GOCE data to determine the rate of gravity acceleration changes and to analyze discrepancies in Earth’s horizontal and vertical gravity field components. By incorporating seismological data, they constructed three-dimensional images of Earth’s plate tectonics and cratons.
Cratons: A Glimpse into Ancient Continents
Cratons are ancient and stable components of the continental lithosphere, which consists of Earth’s topmost layers, the crust and uppermost mantle. Generally found in the interiors of tectonic plates, cratons have often endured cycles of continental merging and rifting.
“In East Antarctica, we see an exciting mosaic of geological features that reveal fundamental similarities and differences between the crust beneath Antarctica and other continents it was joined to until 160 million years ago,” explained Ferraccioli.
The 3D images exposed that parts of West Antarctica possess a significantly thinner crust and lithosphere compared to East Antarctica, which shares similarities with Australia and India. East Antarctica contains remnants of land believed to have been part of Gondwana, a long-lost supercontinent spanning an astonishing 39,000,000 square miles.
With 98% of Antarctica covered by two kilometers of ice, studies like these help uncover the rich history of the continent and remind us that there is still much to discover beneath the ice.
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