While cruising around the western coast of Antarctica, polar researchers stumbled across a never-before-seen island that’s recently been revealed to the world by a retreating glacier.
Scientists from Thwaites Glacier Offshore Research (THOR) spotted the rocky landmass while sailing around Pine Island Bay earlier this month aboard the icebreaker RV Nathaniel B Palmer. Within a few days, after some distant observations, the team became the first people to set foot on the island and even met a few of its marine mammal residents.
The island has aptly been dubbed “Sif” as a homage to the Norse goddess of earth, and wife of Thor.
“This island is on no charts we know of,” tweeted Julia Smith Wellner, a glacial marine geoscientist for THOR.
“After being the first visitors, we can now confirm that Sif Island is made of granite and that it is covered by remnant ice shelf, and a few seals,” she said in a later tweet.
The THOR project is a joint venture between the US and the UK to study one of the most unstable glaciers in Antarctica, the Thwaites Glacier, as well as the surrounding waters in the Pine Island Bay of the Amundsen Sea. Both the Thwaites Glacier and the Pine Island Glacier are some of the fastest-retreating glaciers in Antarctica, primarily due to warm ocean water from the Amundsen Sea that circulates under the ice, causing it to melt. The melting glacier ice then becomes loosened from the bedrock below, causing it to flow faster and deeper underneath the ice shelf.
A first glance of Sif island suggests the ice on the island was once part of the Pine Island Glacier ice shelf. Paired with satellite data of the area, the researchers believe the land was revealed at some point over the past decade due to the ice shelf melting because of climate change. However, as Nature reports, it’s remained hidden for many years because very few ships travel that far south, and its ice-topped cap meant it was hard to see from the viewpoint of a satellite.
While this discovery might not be amazing news for our planet, it does present some incredible new opportunities for glaciologists and geologists. Melting glaciers help to release pressure from the Earth’s crust, displacing rock and causing the mantle underneath to “ooze” out, changing Earth’s shape. By studying the geology of Sif island, researchers can gain a deeper understanding of how climate change and retreating glaciers are affecting this mysterious continent.
"Antarctica's geology is so ice-covered, we really don't know much about it," Jim Marschalek, PhD student in Earth Science at Imperial College London who was part of the expedition, said in a statement. "There aren't any other outcropping rocks for 70 kilometers [43 miles] in any direction, so this was a special opportunity."