A Huge "Dark River" May Be Flowing Deep Beneath Greenland


Tom Hale

Senior Journalist

clockDec 17 2019, 15:58 UTC

Helheim Glacier in East Greenland. Shot from helicopter. Ulannaq Ingemann/Shutterstock

Something could be stirring deep beneath the ice sheets of Greenland.

Researchers have recently discovered there might be a hidden “dark river”, possibly as long as the Ohio River, embedded within an underground valley beneath the Greenland ice sheet, transporting gallons of meltwater from central Greenland to the northern coast in pitch darkness.


Presenting their study at the American Geophysical Union annual meeting last Monday, scientists from Hokkaido University in Japan and the University of Oslo in Norway said they found the so-called "dark river" using simulations that mapped how subglacial water might flow throughout the hidden features beneath the ice. 

“Though considerable uncertainty remains, the results are consistent with a present-day active long subglacial river system that, if confirmed with further radar bed observations, could be over 1,600 kilometers long,” the researchers explain in a summary of the research for their presentation at the AGU. 

Christopher Robert Scott Chambers and Ralf Greve/Hokkaido University/Bas Altena and Pierre-Marie Lefeuvre/University of Oslo

Speaking to Live Science, study author Christopher Chambers, a researcher at Hokkaido University, explained that the river was around 300 to 500 meters (980 to 1,640 feet) below the surface, a depth which he notes is very unexpected for a feature this long. Combined with the team's simulation work, this hints that it could be a site with active erosion or sediment deposition, possibly from the flow of a river.

It’s unclear how strong the water flow might be, however, it probably depends on the season. During the winter, when the glaciers are strong and sturdy, the river is likely to be just a trickle. However, as glacial melt increases in the springtime, the river could become quite the force to be reckoned with. 


Slowly but surely, new technology and sharper methods are revealing the worlds hidden beneath our planet's glaciers

As part of NASA’s Operation IceBridge, radar-armed planes flew above the Arctic, Antarctica, and Alaska, gathering data on the height, depth, thickness, flow, and change of sea ice, glaciers, and ice sheets. Through mapping the bedrock under the Greenland ice sheet, the NASA project also detailed the presence of a subglacial canyon – which they named the "grand canyon of Greenland” – in the area that stretches from Greenland's interior to the Arctic Ocean in the north. They suggest that it may have once been a river system, but today transports subglacial meltwater across the island. 

  • tag
  • ice,

  • Arctic,

  • glacier,

  • Greenland,

  • river,

  • dark river