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Gamburtsev Mountains, Mysterious Antarctic Range, Explained In New Research

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A mysterious 750-mile long Antarctic mountain range described as the "ghost Alps" are no longer such an enigma, despite being buried under miles of ice.

The Gamburtsev Mountains, which lie under the East Antarctic Ice Sheet, have been a mystery to scientists since they were first detected in 1958.

During the 2007-2009 International Polar Year expedition, a seven-nation team of scientists successfully mapped the mountain range and discovered its likely origin, according to a British Antarctic Survey press release. The team used two twin-engined aircraft "equipped with ice penetrating radars, gravity meters and magnetometers" to study the ghostly slopes.

Their research, published this week in Nature under the title "East Antarctic rifting triggers uplift of the Gamburtsev Mountains," suggests the mountains may be part of a rift, a feature created by the separation of tectonic plates.

According to National Geographic, this rift may have been created by the breakup of the supercontinent Gondwana around 250 million years ago.

The mountains then formed on top of a much older "crustal root," or base of a previously-eroded mountain range, reports ScienceDaily. Despite their advanced age, the Gamburtsevs remain surprisingly uneroded, with sharp peaks and valleys. Entombed in nearly two miles of ice, the mountains have been protected from normal weathering which would have smoothed their Alpine features.

One of the study's co-authors, Dr. Carol Finn from the U.S. Geological Survey, said in a press release:

Resolving the contradiction of the Gamburtsev high elevation and youthful Alpine topography but location on the East Antarctic craton by piecing together the billion year history of the region was exciting and challenging. We are accustomed to thinking that mountain building relates to a single tectonic event, rather than sequences of events. The lesson we learned about multiple events forming the Gamburtsevs may inform studies of the history of other mountain belts.

Popular Mechanics reports that the case isn't closed on the Gamburtsevs quite yet, however. A Chinese research team is reportedly planning an expedition in the next several years that will "drill through the ice and into the rock below."

In other Antarctic news, NASA recently released footage of the 18-mile long crack that was discovered in a glacier, allowing viewers to witness the "birth of an iceberg."

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