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Gigantic 'Grand Canyon' buried beneath Antarctic ice (+video)

A humongous rift located under West Antarctica that provides a channel for warm ocean water to creep toward the interior of the ice sheet could be accelerating ice loss, say scientists.

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"The geology and topography under the ice controls how the ice flows," said Robin Bell, a geophysicist and professor at Columbia University's Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, who was not associated with the research. "Ice will flow faster over sediments, like those found in rifts," said Bell, a veteran Antarctic researcher, who has long studied yet another dramatic, yet invisible geological feature, the hidden Gamburtsev Mountains in East Antarctica. 

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In addition, the study authors write, the rift is providing a channel for warm ocean water to creep toward the interior of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet, gnawing away at the Ferrigno Glacier from below.

Together, these two factors could be speeding the glacier's march to the sea, and the overall effects could have implications for the stability of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet, which is responsible for 10 percent of global sea level rise that is currently happening.

Scientists are still only just beginning to understand the myriad mechanisms that control the seemingly dramatic melting observed in regions of West Antarctica, and how climate change is affecting all the moving parts.

"With something like the Antarctic ice sheet, some of these processes take centuries, and the amount of time we've been able to observe changes is at the maximum 20 years," Bingham said. "It's a very small amount of time."

"We need to gather more data," he said.

Reach Andrea Mustain at amustain@techmedianetwork.com, or follow her on Twitter @AndreaMustainFollow OurAmazingPlanet on Twitter @OAPlanet. We're also on Facebook & Google+.

Copyright 2012 OurAmazingPlanet, a TechMediaNetwork company. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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