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Holiday calendar: Antarctica stripped

BEDMAP Collaboration / BAS

This graphic shows the bedrock beneath Antarctic ice. The color scale goes from 2,250 meters below sea level (blue) to 2,250 meters above sea level (red).

A British survey suggests what the Antarctic continent would look like if it were stripped bare of all its ice.

This BEDMAP elevation image of the polar region is based on satellite imagery as well as observations made from planes, ships and even dog-drawn sleds, the British Antarctic Survey reported today. Hamish Pritchard, a researcher from the BAS, presented the digital maps at the American Geophysical Union's fall meeting in San Francisco.

Less than 1 percent of Antarctica's bedrock projects above the continent's layer of ice, the BBC reported. If all that ice were suddenly taken away, the sea would pour into the dark blue troughs shown on the BEDMAP picture. The light blue area on the graphic indicates the Antarctic continental shelf.

"In many areas, you can now see the troughs, valleys and mountains as if you were looking at a part of the earth we're much more used to seeing, exposed to the air," Pritchard told the BBC. Such imagery has helped scientists trace the roots of the Gamburtsev Mountains, a range of peaks buried two miles (3 kilometers) below the surface of the East Antarctic Ice Sheet.

In the picture above, the Gamburtsev range is the deep-red area just to the right of the continent's center. "It's fascinating to see the Gamburtsevs in the context of the other big mountains in Antarctica," Pritchard said.

BEDMAP Consortium / BAS

This graphic provides a sidelong perspective on the Antarctic bedrock, looking inward from the Antarctic Peninsula toward the center of the continent.

This survey of the naked continent, which follows up in far greater detail on an earlier BEDMAP scan, wasn't done merely to fascinate scientists (and the rest of us). Understanding Antarctica's rocky foundation could help climate researchers get a better sense of how the polar ice cap may respond to future climate change.

The key observations included radar soundings that penetrated the ice and bounced off the underlying rock, which told researchers how far down the ice went. Still more airborne surveys need to be made to flesh out BEDMAP's view in detail.

These pictures serve as today's offerings from the Cosmic Log Space Advent Calendar, which features views of Earth from space every day from now until Christmas. Check back on Tuesday for the next "treat," and check out these links for previous entries as well as other space-themed Advent calendars:

Connect with the Cosmic Log community by "liking" the log's Facebook page, following @b0yle on Twitter and adding the Cosmic Log page to your Google+ presence. You can also check out "The Case for Pluto," my book about the controversial dwarf planet and the search for new worlds.