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You’ll never guess what’s hiding beneath Greenland’s ice sheet

Published Nov 11th, 2020 7:27PM EST
greenland lake
Image: Reid Wiseman/NASA

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  • Scientists have discovered a massive lake bed hiding deep beneath Greenland’s thick sheet of ice.
  • The lake would have covered 2,700 square miles, though it’s hard to tell how old the lake truly is.
  • Sediment analysis would reveal the age of the lake, but it would take a lot of work to make that happen.

Greenland, despite its name, isn’t all that green. It’s actually covered in ice — this was always the mind-blowing thing that teachers liked to reveal when they told us that Greenland and Iceland are basically the opposite of what their names would suggest — and some of that ice is incredibly thick. Understand what might be hidden under that ice has been challenging for scientists, but new research suggests that Greenland is hiding something big.

Using data from NASA’s Operation IceBridge, researchers have been able to determine that there’s a colossal lake bed sitting far beneath Greenland’s thick layer of ice. The research was published in the journal Earth and Planetary Science Letters.

Multiple data sources were used to make the discovery, with NASA’s Operation IceBridge — which provides a three-dimensional representation of arctic ice — helping to reveal the huge basin beneath the ice that was likely once a lake covering an area of roughly 2,700 square miles. Needless to say, that’s an absolutely massive area, and a lake that large would have dominated the landscape prior to it becoming covered in thick ice.

“This could be an important repository of information, in a landscape that right now is totally concealed and inaccessible,” Guy Paxman, lead author of the work, said in a statement. “We’re working to try and understand how the Greenland ice sheet has behaved in the past. It’s important if we want to understand how it will behave in future decades.”

The discovery is big, but there’s one very important thing that’s missing, and that’s an estimate of how old the lake bed actually is. This is particularly difficult because Greenland’s ice didn’t just arrive one day and never move. The ice sheet gradually took over the land, advancing to new areas, retreating at times, and then re-advancing. This happens over tens of millions of years, so guessing when the lake was present is difficult.

Determining exactly when the lake was “alive,” so to speak, is actually possible, but it’s going to take a lot of work. According to the researchers, the sediment in the lake bed would help to reveal its age and also offer clues as to when the ice was present in the region and when it wasn’t. That would go a long way toward explaining some of the quirks of Greenland’s geography that remains hidden beneath mile-thick ice. There are no plans to actually try to drill down to get at the sediment, but now that scientists know the lake bed is there, it might not be long before someone decides to try.