Scientists ventured beneath the surface to discover a reservoir of water hidden thousands of feet below an ice sheet in western Antarctica.

The discovery could provide clues as to how the frozen continent would react to climate change and its effect on sea level, according to a paper published in the journal Science on Thursday. The trove of water validates suspicions from researchers, who have long believed there could be a groundwater system hidden beneath Antarctic ice streams but were unable to verify their claims.

"Ice streams are important because they funnel about 90% of Antarctica’s ice from the interior out to the margins,” said Chloe Gustafson, a researcher at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography at the University of , San Diego.

A team of scientists from Scripps Institution of Oceanography and Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory first found evidence of the groundwater system during a six-week field trip to Antarctica in 2018. Using a technique called magnetotelluric imaging, the team mapped sediments under Whillans Ice Stream. The stream is one of several large, fast-moving rivers of ice flowing from the West Antarctic Ice Sheet into the Ross Ice Shelf.


"The streams control how fast Antarctica will push ice out into the ocean and cause sea-level rise,” Kerry Key, one of the co-authors of the paper, told the Wall Street Journal, comparing the ice streams to a Slip 'N Slide.

The groundwater was detected in the thick sediment buried under ice and snow, nearly 3,000 feet below the Whillans Ice Stream. If the groundwater were sucked out of the sediment, it would create a lake 722 to 2,690 feet deep, according to researchers.

"The Empire State Building up to the antenna is about 420 meters tall," Gustafson said. "At the shallow end, our water would go up the Empire State Building about halfway. At the deepest end, it’s almost two Empire State Buildings stacked on top of each other. This is significant because subglacial lakes in this area are two to 15 meters deep. That’s like one to four stories of the Empire State Building."


The presence of groundwater could also affect the speed of Antarctic ice loss. Water could move up to the ice stream as a result of thinning ice amid a warming climate, contributing to the speed of the stream and how quickly it is carried to the ocean, researchers said.

The discovery suggests there could be other hidden water reservoirs underneath other ice streams in Antarctica.