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Alexandra Witze, Earth in action

Antarctica’s concealed mountains tell of wonders revealed by pure science

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SN Prime December 12, 2011 | Vol 1., No. 24

In the desolation of East Antarctica lies a mountain range like no other: phantom peaks buried from view beneath thousands of meters of ice.

H.P. Lovecraft, the fantasy and horror writer, might well have been describing this range in his 1931 novella At the Mountains of Madness. In it, a geology professor leads an Antarctic expedition to mountains higher than the Himalayas, only to find insanity and death lurking beyond.

These days, Antarctic geologists may feel twinges of insanity when pondering the money and logistics needed to study the most inaccessible part of the most inaccessible continent. But these mountains, known as the Gamburtsevs, are arguably Earth’s last great terra incognita, and so exploring them has been a top scientific priority.

From March 2007 to March 2009—the two-year period questionably known as the International Polar Year—the range was the focus of a seven-nation push that tested both endurance and organization. Scientists flew planes back and forth across the icy expanses, probing the buried mountains with lasers, gravity and magnetic instruments.

The result: an astoundingly detailed picture of a mountain range no one has ever actually seen. The Gamburtsevs turn out to be incredibly jagged, with soaring peaks like those in today’s Alps. Between the peaks lie U-shaped valleys carved by the slow grinding of ancient ice. Who would have thought such a featureless plain could hide such a ferociously beautiful landscape?

Even more mystifying is how the Gamburtsevs came to be in the first place. They soar high above one of the most geologically boring parts of Antarctica, an ancient rock shield that hasn’t been crumpled by tectonic forces in hundreds of millions of years. It’s as if mountains as big as the Rockies suddenly popped up in Ohio. In the Nov. 17 Nature, scientists call the Gamburtsevs “the least understood tectonic feature on Earth.”

But the International Polar Year findings may be starting to change that. In the paper in Nature, Fausto Ferraccioli of the British Antarctic Survey in Cambridge and colleagues have assembled the first full picture of how the Gamburtsevs came to be.

It all dates back to a billion years ago, when East Antarctica was beginning to assemble itself. Continental fragments collided and merged, like jigsaw pieces sketching the outline of a full puzzle. Then, starting a quarter of a billion years ago, tectonic forces pulled part of the jigsaw apart, allowing its ancient heart to rise up. Flowing rivers and glaciers chiseled down into the newly uplifted landscape, fashioning the alpine topography that the Gamburtsevs display today. The final piece of the puzzle was a far larger piece of ice: the East Antarctic ice sheet, which began to form when global temperatures plunged about 34 million years ago, sheathing and protecting the otherworldly mountains.

It’s a fascinating story, made all the more remarkable for sketching out the billion-year history of a landscape no one has ever seen. Lovecraft’s fictional scientists could only have dreamed of compiling such a tale. Such grand syntheses are the beauty and the strength of earth science, which takes landforms in the world around us and stitches them into an overarching tale of how the planet came to be. Yet without pure exploration, no one would ever know this stunning story.

Scientists are already talking about assembling another research team to drill into the ice and yank out rocks from Gamburtsev peaks. Such studies are far from obscure. After all, it was cores of ancient ice from Antarctica and Greenland that revealed hundreds of thousands of years of precious information about our planet’s past climate, preserved in tiny bubbles of carbon dioxide and other gases within the ice. Rocks from the Gamburtsevs promise similar revelations about Earth’s history. As Robin Bell of the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory points out, scientists have managed to bring back rocks from the moon but none from the most intriguing mountain range on our own planet.

In an era when Congress is racing to cut science budgets, and business interests press for an immediate practical application of every new finding, it’s worth stopping and remembering just what pure science can yield. Without looking, no one would have ever found the lost mountains at the bottom of the world. Without probing further, no one would have realized that the forbidden realms of fantasy are closer than we think.

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