Hidden beneath 2.5 miles of ice, the Gamburtsev Mountains in eastern Antarctica are the most mysterious peaks on Earth. Michael Studinger, a scientist at Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, helped lead a recent expedition to map these invisible mountains using geophysical instruments. He will speak this Sunday about his trip. He answers a few questions here:
Q: How big are the Gamburtsevs, and how did you map them?
They’re about the size of the Alps, roughly covering an area the size of New York. We flew over the ice cap in a Twin Otter plane outfitted with sensors, collecting more than 75,000 miles of data. Using ice-penetrating radar we mapped the mountains and also measured the gravity and magnetic field above them.
Q: How did the mountains get there?
That’s a big puzzle. It’s strange to find these mountains within the interior of Antarctica. Analyzing the data will help us determine whether they were formed by colliding tectonic plates or a volcanic hot spot.
Q: You grew up in southern Germany, climbing high peaks in the Alps. What other outdoor adventures have you had?
I’ve been on two expeditions to Greenland, two to the Canadian high Arctic and four to Antarctica. On this expedition, we spent one month camping out on the East Antarctic Plateau, a remote, bitterly cold place at high elevation. Temperatures hover around -20°F, and feel like -50°F with wind chill. You’re careful to cover your skin to guard against frostbite and to watch your teammates closely for signs of hypothermia. It’s a tough place to work.
Q: The Russians discovered this range in 1958. Are you the first to return?
The Chinese visited in 2005, but this is the first major scientific expedition since 1958. The Gamburtsevs are located near the South Pole of Inaccessibility, the geographic center of Antarctica. Its isolation tells you why it took almost 50 years for people to return. The project was started by the U.S. but became an international effort after we realized it was too big for one country to tackle alone.
Q: The Russian explorers named the range after geophysicist Grigoriy Gamburtsev. Is there a chance that Studinger Mountain or Bell Peak (after expedition co-leader Robin Bell) might appear on some future map?
I would hope not. Gamburtsev was a great geophysicist who believed in an interdisciplinary approach to earth science. While our project exemplifies that philosophy, I feel we should enjoy the beauty of these mountains without cluttering their peaks and valleys with additional names.