The World's Largest Canyon Might Be Trapped Under Antarctic Ice

Massive Canyon Found in East Antarctica
Researchers may have found the largest canyon in the world. Only problem is, no one can see it. NASA/Jeff Schmaltz/LANCE/EOSDIS Rapid Response/Reuters

Very little is known about what lies beneath the vast expanse of ice in Antarctica. But a group of researchers think they have a new clue: Tiny variations in satellite images suggest that a massive canyon, the largest in the world, is hidden under Princess Elizabeth Land in East Antarctica, a particularly mysterious region of the continent.

In a study published Wednesday in the journal Geology, researchers from the University of Durham announced they found evidence of a canyon system about the same depth of the Grand Canyon but more than twice as long, at over 621 miles in length. They also think they may have discovered a massive subglacial lake, estimated to be about 776 square miles large, or about 80 times bigger than Lake Windermere, the largest lake in the U.K.

This illustration shows the location of Princess Elizabeth Land in East Antarctica. Geology

"The landscape beneath East Antarctica is less well known than the surface of Mars," Stewart Jamieson, a geographer at the University of Durham and the lead author of the study, said in a video accompanying the announcement.

The team found evidence of the canyon and lake in "very long, linear features" in the surface ice, which suggests ice flowing over a varied landscape. Fluctuations in water over millions of years, as the East Antarctic ice sheet waxed and waned, may have carved the canyon system deeper and deeper over time, the researchers hypothesized.

This illustration shows the likely location in East Antarctica of the canyon system and lake, based on the researchers' satellite data. Geology

The findings still need to be confirmed with direct measurements, and an international team is already in the region to do just that. Results of that study, which could make the news of the world's largest canyon official, are expected later this year.