Publication Date April 19, 2017

Scientists have discovered vast systems of flowing water in Antarctica. And that worries them.

Scientists have discovered that seasonally flowing streams fringe much of Antarctica’s ice. Each red “X” represents a separate drainage. Up to now, such features were thought to exist mainly on the far northerly Antarctic Peninsula (upper left). Their widespread presence signals that the ice may be more vulnerable to melting than previously thought. Image: Adapted from Kingslake et al., Nature 2017

The surface of the remote Antarctic ice sheet may be a far more dynamic place than scientists imagined, new research suggests. Decades of satellite imagery and aerial photography have revealed an extensive network of lakes and rivers transporting liquid meltwater across the continent’s ice shelves — nearly 700 systems of connected pools and streams in total.


The findings, presented Wednesday in a pair of papers in Nature, could upend our understanding of the way meltwater interacts with the frozen ice sheet. We now know that, rather than simply pooling where it melts in every case, liquid water may run for miles across the continent first — and that discovery comes with some worrying implications.