Greenland Canyon: Massive Gorge Discovered Under Ice Sheet Is Comparable To The Grand Canyon [VIDEO]

By Josh Lieberman on August 29, 2013 5:17 PM EDT

greenland
A canyon was discovered buried under the Greenland ice sheet thanks to data collected as part of NASA's IceBridge project. Above, an aerial photo of Greenland taken during an IceBridge mission. (Photo: NASA)

One of the biggest canyons in the world has been discovered in Greenland. You may wonder how something as large as this one -- the canyon is about 470 miles long -- has gone unnoticed for this many years. The answer: very old ice.

Like much of the country, the canyon is covered by the Greenland ice sheet, a roughly 660,000-square-mile body of ice that dates back millions of years. The 2,600-foot deep canyon is completely covered by the mile-thick ice sheet, and so the canyon (obviously) predates the ice.

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That means there's a piece of Earth twice as long as the Grand Canyon that no human being has ever seen.

"With Google Streetview available for many cities around the world and digital maps for everything from population density to happiness, one might assume that the landscape of the Earth has been fully explored and mapped," said Jonathan Bamber, a University of Bristol researcher and the lead author of a study on the canyon. "Our research shows there's still a lot left to discover."

Bamber and his team discovered the hidden Greenland canyon while looking into climate change in Greenland. In looking at radar readings of Greenland's bedrock, taken chiefly by NASA's airborne survey program IceBridge, the researchers discovered the massive canyon. Radio waves penetrating the ice sheet revealed the landscape of the hidden canyon, which runs from the center of Greenland all the way to its northern extremity.

The researchers believe that the canyon was carved by a river more than four million years ago. The canyon is believed to play a role in the transportation of water from the melting ice sheet.

"You think that everything that could be known about the land surface is known, but it's not," said Bamber. "There's still so much to learn about the planet."

The study on the Greenland canyon is titled "Paleofluvial Mega-Canyon Beneath the Central Greenland Ice Sheet," and was published in Science.

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