© Ben Smith, University of WashingtonDots represent the locations where scientists have identified 124 active lakes below the ice sheet in Antarctica. Warmer colors (orange and red) depict lakes with larger water volumes while cooler colors (green and blue) depict lakes with smaller volumes. Purple areas show the locations of previously known inactive lakes.
Lakes in Antarctica, concealed under miles of ice, require scientists to come up with creative ways to identify and analyze these hidden features. Now, researchers using space-based lasers on a NASA satellite have created the most comprehensive inventory of lakes that actively drain or fill under Antarctica's ice. They have revealed a continental plumbing system that is more dynamic than scientists thought.
"Even though Antarctica's ice sheet looks static, the more we watch it, the more we see there is activity going on there all the time," said Benjamin Smith of the University of Washington in Seattle, who led the study.
Unlike most lakes, Antarctic lakes are under pressure from the ice above. That pressure can push melt water from place to place like water in a squeezed balloon. The water moves under the ice in a broad, thin layer, but also through a linked cavity system. This flow can resupply other lakes near and far.