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Exploring The Ice Mountains
October 14, 2008 4:01 PM   Subscribe

Beneath the Antarctica lies a hidden mountain range known as the Gamburtsevs. The mountains are at least 4km beneath the ice and present a puzzle for scientists who are unable to explain what the mountains are doing there.

Now an international team are embarking on a mission to explore the region that the mysterious mountain range lies in.

"This region is a complete enigma" says Dr Fausto Ferraccioli of the British Antarctic Survey "It's in the middle of the continent. Most mountain ranges are on the edges of continents, and we really can't understand what these mountains are doing in the centre."
posted by panboi (59 comments total) 20 users marked this as a favorite

 
I think this is a bad plan.
posted by Caduceus at 4:03 PM on October 14, 2008 [29 favorites]


goddamn, beaten to the Lovecraft reference right off the mark.
posted by GuyZero at 4:07 PM on October 14, 2008


But there's still time to make a Doctor Fausto joke.
posted by Your Time Machine Sucks at 4:14 PM on October 14, 2008


I am forced into speech because men of science have refused to follow my advice without knowing why. It is altogether against my will that I tell my reasons for opposing this contemplated invasion of the antarctic - with its vast fossil hunt and its wholesale boring and melting of the ancient ice caps. And I am the more reluctant because my warning may be in vain.... and fuck dammit Caduceus got there first.
posted by Artw at 4:16 PM on October 14, 2008 [4 favorites]


The mountains are at least 4km beneath the ice and present a puzzle for scientists who are unable to explain what the mountains are doing there.

Um, being mountains?
posted by JHarris at 4:20 PM on October 14, 2008 [2 favorites]



unable to explain what the mountains are doing there.

Cheney's summer home?
posted by bukharin at 4:21 PM on October 14, 2008 [6 favorites]


I, too, came into this thread wanting to make a Lovecraft reference. It's actually kind of heartening to see that so many people thought of the same thing; it's how I know I'm with my own kind here.
posted by Joakim Ziegler at 4:26 PM on October 14, 2008 [1 favorite]


Cheney's summer home?

Hmmm? Cheney's the Yog Sothoth? I can work with that.
posted by philip-random at 4:33 PM on October 14, 2008


Those are not mountains! No, they are a city, built at strange angles in trifold symmetry by ediacaran biota, long frozen in the ice until the movement of the continents brings warmth to them again. Do not go, Dr Fausto Ferraccioli! To reawaken such as these will end the Age of Man!
posted by aeschenkarnos at 4:33 PM on October 14, 2008 [3 favorites]


Yeah, we should all get together to dance horribly the next time the moon is gibbous. I'll bring the brain cylinders!
posted by JHarris at 4:35 PM on October 14, 2008 [2 favorites]


Well I just came by to say Lovecraft....Nice folks here.
posted by bjgeiger at 4:36 PM on October 14, 2008


Fascinating stuff. If anybody's curious, the Russian name Gamburtsev is stressed on the first syllable (GAHM-boor-tsif).
posted by languagehat at 4:37 PM on October 14, 2008


Expedition to Antarctica
posted by Artw at 4:37 PM on October 14, 2008


Awesome Chaosium minatures. Dog, penguin... unspeakable Eldritch horror. SAN check!
posted by GuyZero at 4:46 PM on October 14, 2008


March 22d. The darkness had materially increased, relieved only by the glare of the water thrown back from the white curtain before us. Many gigantic and pallidly white birds flew continuously now from beyond the veil, and their scream was the eternal Tekeli-li! as they retreated from our vision.

good hustle, metafilter
posted by The Bridge on the River Kai Ryssdal at 4:47 PM on October 14, 2008


That looks like a hell of an expedition. I think the “other planet” analogy is apt. Damn I’m jealous.

If they see some Swedes in a helicopter chasing down a dog tho’, I’d let them kill it. With fire.
posted by Smedleyman at 4:49 PM on October 14, 2008 [4 favorites]


Yeah, we should all get together to dance horribly the next time the moon is gibbous. I'll bring the brain cylinders!

Meetup at the Mountains of Madness? There's a tagline in there somewhere...

Anyway, great find! I'm curious to see what theories get put forth.
posted by xorry at 4:50 PM on October 14, 2008


(Of course my first thought was the mountains are just sitting there in the darkness...until the stars are right)
posted by Smedleyman at 4:50 PM on October 14, 2008


> unable to explain what the mountains are doing there.

The backstroke.
posted by Mr. Bad Example at 4:52 PM on October 14, 2008 [1 favorite]


I don't really understand why there's a mystery.

Antarctica was once semi-tropical, way back during the golden age of Gondawana, and the mountains could have formed the same ways all the other mountains on the planet formed. Say, about the time all of Antarctica's coal deposits formed.

If Antarctica had always been centered on the south pole, and always covered with ice, I can understand why there'd be a mystery. But it wasn't.
posted by Class Goat at 4:53 PM on October 14, 2008 [1 favorite]


... and is it just me or is it deeply troubling that this thread and this one should both occur on the same day? And not just any day either, the day of the Canadian election. And what's so significant about Canada? It's as far away as you can get from Antarctica and still be on planet earth.

If this doesn't make you think, nothing will.
posted by philip-random at 4:53 PM on October 14, 2008


I am the champion!

At least, this round.
posted by Caduceus at 4:58 PM on October 14, 2008


It is only with vast hesitancy and repugnance that I let my mind go back to Lake’s camp and what we really found there - and to that other thing beyond the mountains of madness. I am constantly tempted to shirk the details, and to let hints stand for actual facts and ineluctable deductions. I hope I have said enough already to let me glide briefly over the rest; the rest, that is, of the horror at the camp. I have told of the wind-ravaged terrain, the damaged shelters, the disarranged machinery, the varied uneasiness of our dogs, the missing sledges and other items, the deaths of men and dogs, the absence of Gedney, and the six insanely buried biological specimens, strangely sound in texture for all their structural injuries, from a world forty million years dead. I do not recall whether I mentioned that upon checking up the canine bodies we found one dog missing. We did not think much about that till later - indeed, only Danforth and I have thought of it at all.

Dammit, you all got there before me. *sulks*
posted by jokeefe at 5:02 PM on October 14, 2008


Most mountain ranges are on the edges of continents, and we really can't understand what these mountains are doing in the centre.

The Rocky Mountains aren't on the edge of a continent.
posted by amyms at 5:12 PM on October 14, 2008


But I didn't mean to diminish the interestingness of the post. I was just struck by the "edges of continents" thing.
posted by amyms at 5:14 PM on October 14, 2008


If they see some Swedes in a helicopter chasing down a dog tho’, I’d let them kill it. With fire.

Norwegian I believe :)
posted by lundman at 5:27 PM on October 14, 2008 [3 favorites]


I'm too dumbstruck with the idea that there's at least 4km of ice on top of a mountain range to add to the HPL jokes.

Holy shit, 4km of ice. I had no idea the Antartic ice was so massive.
posted by Iosephus at 5:30 PM on October 14, 2008 [3 favorites]


I really like the part of the picture that has a spot labeled the South Pole of Inaccessibility. That sounds like a fun area to hang out in.
posted by ericales at 5:32 PM on October 14, 2008


Take plenty of dogs!

...for sacrifices.
posted by elfgirl at 5:47 PM on October 14, 2008 [1 favorite]


I like this line from the article...
"I like to say it's rather like being an archaeologist and opening up a tomb in a pyramid and finding an astronaut sitting inside. It shouldn't be there."
Such an elegant way of saying that...
posted by ooklala at 6:03 PM on October 14, 2008


I've seen a documentary about this.
posted by mandal at 6:10 PM on October 14, 2008


i read a really cool article in the 90's in the national geographic about a team of climbers who went into antatica to go climbing. this looks like a picture from that series.
posted by lester at 6:13 PM on October 14, 2008


*pant pant pant pant*

Hey guys! *pant pant pant*

Cthulhu f'taghn!

What?
posted by Mister_A at 6:15 PM on October 14, 2008 [5 favorites]


lester: Holy @#$@#! that guy is scaling a wall without gloves in Antartica?
Niiiiice.
posted by uni verse at 6:29 PM on October 14, 2008


The mountains are at least 4km beneath the ice and present a puzzle for scientists who are unable to explain what the mountains are doing there.

Uh... I made a mess of the house while mom was out, and instead of putting my toys away, I swept them under the rug.

pls don't tell Zeus!
posted by -harlequin- at 6:38 PM on October 14, 2008 [3 favorites]


amyms: The Rocky Mountains aren't on the edge of a continent.

You bring up a good point because the Rockies are a bit puzzling to geologists as well. Normally when there is a collision between tectonic plates, there is mountain building, volcanoes and granite plutons formed within a couple hundred miles of the edge of the continent. The ocean slab dives down under the continental edge and when it gets deep enough, about 200 miles inland, it starts melting, rises and forms mountains like the Sierra Nevadas. The Rockies are unexpectedly hundreds of miles farther inland so the the thought is that the oceanic slab descended at an unusually shallow angle and didn't melt until much farther inland.

If the mountains in Antarctica were formed this way the question is why they are still there since the last collision was 500 million years ago. That is almost twice as old as the Appalachians so you would expect them to have eroded mostly away, not being as tall as the Alps. Most of that time they were not covered with ice.

The mystery will likely remain until they can drill and retrieve samples to determine the age and composition of the rocks. Some of the highest peaks are within 2000 feet of the covering ice. This is not a trivial operation considering that the entire area is about 12,000 feet above sea level.
posted by JackFlash at 6:43 PM on October 14, 2008 [3 favorites]


amyms: Looking further into the wikipedia article, the formation of the Rocky Mountains is a bit of a geological puzzle as well. The current theory seems to be that the subduction slab was at a flatter angle than typical, causing the mountains to be created further inland, perhaps something similar was at work in Antarctica.
posted by borkencode at 6:44 PM on October 14, 2008


Now about the Altay Mountains? Which are about as far as it's possible to be from an ocean?
posted by Class Goat at 6:55 PM on October 14, 2008


Most mountain ranges are on the edges of continents, and we really can't understand what these mountains are doing in the centre

The Rocky Mountains aren't on the edge of a continent.

Hmm...neither are the Ural Mountains, the Carpathian mountains or the Baikal Mountains, or the Chuya Alps, or any of the Sayan Mountains, among many others.

I smell...a Russian conspiracy!
posted by Alison at 6:59 PM on October 14, 2008


Now about the Altay Mountains? Which are about as far as it's possible to be from an ocean?

It looks to me like the Indian sub-continent has made a mess of things all the way up.

And how about those Urals? Sure they "separate" two "continents," by their existence, but you gotta admit that it's a pretty silly geographical distinction to call Europe a separate continental entity from Asia, based on a mountain range being right in the middle of the two.
posted by Devils Rancher at 7:12 PM on October 14, 2008


Up until two months ago, I was working for one of the companies providing scientific instruments for this. We were used to operating airplanes in the middle of nowhere, but this expedition takes things to a whole new level. The science is impressive, but the logistics behind mobilizing two aircraft with scientific payloads to Antarctica are phenomenal: the ballpark figure for the cost of jet fuel on site is $100/gallon as it all needs to be shipped in by air. The airplanes will be aiming to operate 20 hours/day in the continuous sunlight of the Antarctic summer because they have a limited weather window in which to complete the survey (and the grant money for IPY runs out after this season so there are no do-overs). The base camp is at something like 16000 feet above sea level and spare people are being sent in case some of them don't acclimate to the altitude and need to be sent home. Sufficient spare parts for everything that will need to last the whole summer must be sent ahead of time as shipping costs and times are prohibitive.

Prior to the expedition, they have had test surveys in Greenland earlier this year (see the slide show on Michael Studinger's home page) to make sure the equipment was working, and a test flight to the North Pole last year to see how GPS would behave at high latitudes.
posted by cardboard at 7:12 PM on October 14, 2008 [12 favorites]


On post-view, Hi, Alison!
posted by Devils Rancher at 7:13 PM on October 14, 2008


First: Maps of the Ancient Sea Kings.

Second: Why was Kim Philby so interested in Mount Ararat?
posted by Kikkoman at 7:15 PM on October 14, 2008


Most mountain ranges are on the edges of continents, and we really can't understand what these mountains are doing in the centre

The Rocky Mountains aren't on the edge of a continent.


... as there don't seem to be any Geologists on this thread, allow me (as someone who's related to various Geologists) to suggest that mountain ranges (particularly the honking big ones) are generally found where two major tectonic plates have collided with each other, hence the uplift. I have no source to link to on this; I just seem to remember it being pointed out to me once with some authority.
posted by philip-random at 7:19 PM on October 14, 2008


Awesome Chaosium minatures.

It's nice to see that some things never change. I remember some of those miniatures from 1985.
posted by The Light Fantastic at 7:20 PM on October 14, 2008


Antarctica was once semi-tropical... and the mountains could have formed the same ways all the other mountains on the planet formed....If Antarctica had always been centered on the south pole, and always covered with ice, I can understand why there'd be a mystery. But it wasn't.

The position relative to the poles doesn't make a difference for mountain formation.
The climate doesn't make a difference for mountain formation.
The coverage with ice doesn't make a difference for mountain formation (well, glaciers can have a big effect on the shape of land they cover, by sculpting and carving it, but they don't lift it up in the first place).


The Rocky Mountains are in the middle of a continent

Yes, the sound bite of "how did these mysterious mountains get in the middle of a continent?" is totally misleading. Our current broad understanding of mountain-building processes does have the resources to explain mountains in the middle of continents.

Here's a cartoon picture of the ways mountains form on continents, on our current understanding:

1. At a plate boundary where two plates are moving toward one another, two things can happen:

a. Both plates push up
This happens if both have "continental" material at the place where they're meeting. Continental material is lighter, less dense, than ocean-floor material, so it's hard to push it down into the earth - so it goes up. Imagine sliding two squares of carpet toward each other until they wrinkle up. Example: the Himalayas.

b. One plate goes under the other (subduction)
In this case, as one plate goes down into the mantle, some material can partially melt and "bubble up" through the overriding plate. The upwelling material causes volcanoes like the Andes (a plate is subducting under S. America, moving west to east, and its partial melts come up through the S. American plate).

2. At a plate boundary where two plates are moving away from one another:
As the plates pull apart, the material at the edges cracks apart into blocks, which drop down along one edge and tilt up along the other edge as the gaps between them grow. Eventually you get a low plain between the two spreading edges - eg the Rift Valley in Africa, or in the extreme case, the Atlantic Ocean.

3. Hotspots, which can occur at plate boundaries (Iceland) or in the middle of plates (Hawaii, Yellowstone)


And of course, all of these processes can add up over time. A single continent could be stretched and fault-block mountains could form, then that movement could end, and the continent could have another plate slide under it causing Andes-style volcanoes, then the downgoing plate could bring with it another continent (like a dog sliding along on a dragged rug) to collide with the first. Now we have a very complex set of mountain structures smack in the middle of a larger supercontinent. It is just plain not mysterious how there can be mountains in the middle of a continent.


So, the mystery is not "how can there be big mountains in the middle of a continent" but something more specific to this situation. I can't glean from these very cursory articles what the mystery is, exactly. Maybe it's "we think Antarctica has been a single continental mass for so long that its mountains should have been worn away by erosion long ago"; maybe it's "we have other reasons to think these can't be due to a hotspot";.... ? I wish the expedition page made it clearer.
posted by LobsterMitten at 7:22 PM on October 14, 2008 [6 favorites]


So I bet all the French sf/f geeks are thinking of an entirely different novel.

No, seriously, Francophones, remember that one? It was the first book I ever read in French, for class, and since I still didn't speak the language very well, my mum had to help me through it. Which was VERY awkward when we got to the part when the lady from the past reminisces about the extremely acrobatic synchronized swimming-style sex she had with her beau.

Poor mum. Don't think she was expecting that in a book assigned to 7th graders...
posted by bettafish at 7:37 PM on October 14, 2008


I think a hot spot is unlikely, as they're not really known for making huge mountains. You'd either need the plate to be stable for many tens to hundreds of millions of years (unlikely) or for the hot spot to be far bigger and faster than any previously known ones (unlikely). If it is caused by a hot spot, you'd presumeably see seamounts on the ocean floor tracing the continental movement (much as you can see a trail of Hawaii-like mounts away from the main island that have formed due to the plate moving over a stable hot spot.

As for regular old-fashioned collision style mountain building, this is where it could get interesting. Most of our continental reconstructions are based around the huge amounts of exposed rock we've got on our own continents, and with this data we can make pseudo maps of Rodinia and Gondwana and Pangea and all our supercontinent friends. Being so cold hearted and with such an icy demeanour, Antarctica hasn't really shown us much of what's going on. It's hard to map out a giant contact where it formed from two smaller continents back in the day (like most other modern continents did).

Depending on what they find this could have big implications for plate motion modelss and supercontinent formation and break up.
posted by twirlypen at 8:22 PM on October 14, 2008


uni, it was an amazing article. three or four guys went camping and climbing in those peaks. this is the only other picture i can find of it on that site. this may also be related

also found this
posted by lester at 8:23 PM on October 14, 2008


>could have big implications for plate motion models

Agreed; I assume this is what's meant: it would give us new and surprising information about the actual history of the continents and plate movements, as they happened in our world.

But it's not that they are expecting it to reveal a hitherto undiscovered mechanism of mountain building.
posted by LobsterMitten at 8:45 PM on October 14, 2008


Ah, ok, here we go: Interview with Dr. Robin Bell, who's been involved with the Polar Year research projects:
I understand that there are currently three hypotheses as to how the Gambutsev Mountains were formed. Can you run us through them?

The fact that there are mountains at all in the middle of the East Antarctic landmass constitutes something of a mystery. It's really like finding a mountain range in the middle of a beach. There really shouldn't be mountains there.

* The first hypothesis is that Antarctica is in fact made up of two landmasses that collided 540 million years ago, forming the Gamburtsev in the process, and that the mountains have remained remarkably preserved because somehow their rock composition has impeded erosion.
* The second idea is that the same two pieces of Antarctica collided more recently than we thought, meaning that Antarctica isn't a stale, old continent as was previously supposed.
* And the third idea is that there may be a volcanic plume (or hot-spot) beneath East Antarctica - in essence a giant volcano beneath the ice sheet which is what has formed the Gamburtsev Mountains.

If the Gamburtsev where the result of a collision between two tectonic plates, how would that fit into the accepted theory that Antarctica was part of the Gondwana super-continent before its break-up?

It would suggest that during the break-up of Gondwana, as India and Australia wiggled away towards their present locations, Antarctica didn't stay as one piece - instead of being one big cookie, it was two cookies - and that the two pieces eventually moved back together, forming the Gamburtsev Mountains as they crashed back into each other.

Which theory do you favour at this stage?

I had thought the collision theory was the right one, but it is very hard to reconcile all the facts. For example, we haven't found any young sediments off-shore as there should be if the theory is correct. So perhaps it is a very young volcano and at this stage I think I'd lean toward the possibility of there being a hot-spot.

But according to recent measurements, if it actually is a hot-spot, it isn't actually very warm?

This would point to the volcano being very young. The whole edifice would have had to grow very recently, and not have had a chance to be eroded.
posted by LobsterMitten at 8:52 PM on October 14, 2008 [2 favorites]


I wish I had something clever and insightful to say about the Mountains of Madness, which is why I clicked on the article in the first place; but alas...

I miss MetaFilter. Goodness knows why I stayed away so long. Probably something to do with-- ooh, shiny!

Methinks my RSS feed list needs a massive trim. Less quantity, more quality-- which you guys have in spades. Great article, BTW.
posted by mboszko at 8:52 PM on October 14, 2008


That interview also explains why we should care about the subglacial lakes and some of the other stuff they're studying in the expedition, and is part of a nice website with lots of polar science info.
posted by LobsterMitten at 8:58 PM on October 14, 2008


That's great, Lobstermitten.

Although, if it is a young hot spot, would it have been able to create mountains that large? It'd be hard to keep it young enough to be invisible, but big enough to make the mountains.
posted by twirlypen at 10:21 PM on October 14, 2008


Nice find, LobsterMitten.
posted by JackFlash at 11:00 PM on October 14, 2008


unable to explain what the mountains are doing there.

I think waterboarding them will fix that rather quickly.
posted by DreamerFi at 2:02 AM on October 15, 2008


Personally, I couldn't care less how they were formed, I'm just excited by the concept of climbing mountains in a downward direction. Forget Lovecraft, to me this is so Escher.
posted by mannequito at 3:50 AM on October 15, 2008


So I bet all the French sf/f geeks are thinking of an entirely different novel.

Yes La nuit des temps is a great book, bust I must admit that now every time I read about Antarctica the only book I think of is the really good and really scary The Terror
posted by Jaloux Saboteur at 5:02 AM on October 15, 2008 [1 favorite]


That's the pole with bears!

Though I imagine it's really good reading for international flights between Europe and the West coast of America, as you get to fly over all that stuff and look down at the bleak inhospitability of it all and wonder how long you’d last if the plane crash landed there.
posted by Artw at 7:41 AM on October 15, 2008


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