AGAP = Antarctica’s Gamburtsev Province
AGAP = Antarctica’s Gamburtsev Province

Billion-year-old mountains, the size of the Alps, completely buried in 2 mile deep, million-year-old ice.  Damn.

These mountains are named the Gamburtsevs, are located in Eastern Anarctica, are the size of the Alps (over 10,000 feet tall and 800 miles long), and are entirely covered by the East Antarctic Ice Sheet under ice more than 2 miles deep in spots.  I suppose it’s a stretch to say this is the last unexplored mountain range on Earth, but it is.

The Gamburtsevs were first discovered beneath the ice in 1958 and they boggled the minds of scientists.  It was always assumed that the land beneath the ice would be flat and smooth from millions of years of the ice sheet flowing over it.

Even more interesting was the survey data that has shown that the Gamburtsevs formed over 1 billion years ago.

The Gamburtsevs are thought to have bore an ice sheet that began its painfully slow migration across the Antarctic continent to meet up with the other massive ice sheets and become the East Antarctic Ice Sheet we know today.

How the Antarctic Ice Sheet came to be

“Somewhere in the Gamburtsev region there ought to be a location where ices can be retrieved that are more than a million years old. This would be at least 200,000 years older than the most ancient Antarctic ice cores currently in the possession of scientists.” –

That million year old ice is like crack to geologists because in that ice there will be air bubbles that’ll reveal the contents of the Earth’s early atmosphere and potentially what temperatures were found back then.

Antartic ice infographic

How The Gamburtsevs Formed & Reformed:

– Currently over 10,000 feet tall and 800 miles long and buried under over 10,000 feet of ice

– Formed 1 billion years ago from the continents drifting together and colliding when creating Pangea

– Over time, these mountains (like all mountains) eroded away

– 100-250 million years ago (think dinosaurs) the Earth’s crust pulled apart creating rifts near the old roots of the Gamburtsevs

– The rifting heated the Gamburtsevs, made them buoyant, and they began to lift once more

– The Gamburtsevs continued to grow as valleys and canyons were cut into the mountains via glacial and river erosion

– The glaciers that were born on the Gamburtsevs began to spread out until 35 million years ago when they merged with other ice sheets to become the East Antarctic Ice Sheet

– The East Antarctic Ice Sheet eventually entirely buried the Gamburtsevs and left them as they are today

Click here for larger version of above image:  AGAP

Pangea likely formed 250 million years ago


“Surveying these mountains was an incredible challenge, but we succeeded and it’s produced a fascinating story.” – Dr Fausto Ferraccioli of the British Antarctic Survey as reported to BBC.

The most recent surveys of the Gamburtsevs were done in 2008 & 2009.  It was a multinational effort (USA, Japan, Germany, China, England, Oz)  that flew planes back and forth across Eastern Antarctica mapping the buried mountains with ice-penetrating radar in addition to: “Airborne magnetics and gravity survey information revealed details of the subglacial geology, sedimentary basins, tectonic structures & deep crustal structure” – AGAP


“This research really solves the mystery of how you can have young-looking mountains in the middle of an old continent.  In this case, the original Gamburtsevs probably completely eroded away only to come back, phoenix-like. They’ve had two lives.” –  US principal investigator Dr Robin Bell from the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory of Columbia University as reported to BBC

The  AGAP ( Antarctica Gamburtsevs Province) and they plan to create a detailed history of these inhumed mountains – how they formed, flattened, resurrected, and were finally buried in ice.


AGAP’s Central Focus:

The central focus of this study is to gather information to accurately characterize the tectonic origin (construction or building) of the Gamburtsev Subglacial Mountains, the connection between these mountains and the covering ice sheet and subglacial lakes, and to identify the location of the oldest ice to enable the recovery of the oldest climate record.  In order to study large regional geologic issues and questions, airborne geophysical surveys are often selected.

Airborne radar and potential-field imaging are generally the most cost effective tools available for studying a large geographic region, such as the area defined as Dome A.  The science research team will study an area larger than Texas. These geophysical tools are equivalent to running a medical scanning device over an ice covered continent. Just as doctors can learn about what is inside people using MRIs and Cat Scans, scientists use geophysical instruments to see what is under the ice sheet. Using airborne radar has added benefits in areas that are remote and difficult to access, however, working in an area as remote as Dome A presents multiple logistical challenges.

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