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In 1958, geologists discovered a mountain range buried more than a kilometer beneath the East Antarctica Ice Sheet. For more than half a century, the origins of the Gamburtsev Subglacial Mountains have proven to be a geological puzzle, but a new study may have finally solved the enigma, and simultaneously given geologists a new understanding of mountain-building processes.
The Gamburtsevs lie under the highest point in Antarctica, the 4,000-meter-high Dome Argus Plateau. The mountain range, in the middle of an ancient continental craton, has a thick, crustal root and high topography, which has made the Gamburtsevs the least-understood tectonic feature on Earth for the past 50 years.
“The reason why the Gamburtsevs are so enigmatic is that stable cratons are generally low-lying features with no huge mountain ranges atop,” says Fausto Ferraccioli, a geophysicist at the British Antarctic Survey in Cambridge, England.
The Gamburtsevs are completely covered by ice, preventing scientists from recovering physical rock samples. Earlier studies that determined the root — all that remains of an earlier mountain chain — was at least Precambrian in age relied on indirect evidence: outcrops exposed to the north of the mountains, detrital zircons retrieved from ice cores, and seismic measurements that revealed a crustal thickness of 45 to 60 kilometers. Elsewhere in East Antarctica, the average crustal thickness is about 35 to 40 kilometers.
Ferraccioli and his colleagues used two Twin Otter aircraft equipped with ice-penetrating radar, laser-ranging systems, gravity meters and magnetometers to collect data over a 3-million-square-kilometer area between the South Pole and the Lambert Glacier. The data revealed a previously unknown extension of the East Antarctic Rift System — a 2,500-kilometer-long fracture that extends from East Antarctica across the ocean to India, which, when active, resembled today’s East African Rift System — making it the longest fossil rift system on Earth.
“The next steps will be to assemble a team to drill through the ice into the mountains to obtain the first rock samples from the Gamburtsevs,” says Robin Bell, a geophysicist at Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory and a co-author on the study. “Amazingly, we have samples of the moon but none of the Gamburtsevs.”
The rock samples will help narrow the timeline of root formation, reactivation, rifting and uplift. Nonetheless, Veevers wrote in Nature, “Ferraccioli and colleagues’ study provides the first comprehensive model to explain how a ragged topography can form in an ice-covered continental interior by modification of the underlying crust and lithosphere.”