Exploring Liquid Water Beneath Glaciers and Permafrost in Antarctica Through Airborne Electromagnetic Surveys

Monday, 14 December 2015: 14:40
3007 (Moscone West)
Esben Auken, Aarhus University, Institute for Geoscience, Aarhus, Denmark
Here, we demonstrate how high powered airborne electromagnetic resistivity is efficiently used to map 3D domains of unfrozen water below glaciers and permafrost in the cold regions of the Earth. Exploration in these parts of the world has typically been conducted using radar methods, either ground-based or from an airborne platform. Radar is an excellent method if the penetrated material has a low electrical conductivity, but in materials with higher conductivity, such as sediments with liquid water, the energy is attenuated . Such cases are efficiently explored with electromagnetic methods, which attenuate less quickly in conductive media and can therefore ‘see through’ conductors and return valuable information about their electrical properties.

In 2011, we used a helicopter-borne, time-domain electromagnetic sensor to map resistivity in the subsurface across the McMurdo Dry Valleys (MDV). The MDV are a polar desert in coastal Antarctica where glaciers, permafrost, ice-covered lakes, and ephemeral summer streams coexist. In polar environments, this airborne electromagnetic system excels at finding subsurface liquid water, as water which remains liquid under cold conditions must be sufficiently saline, and therefore electrically conductive. In Taylor Valley, in the MDV, our data show extensive subsurface low resistivity layers beneath higher resistivity layers, which we interpret as cryoconcentrated hypersaline brines lying beneath glaciers and frozen permafrost. These brines appear to be contiguous with surface lakes, subglacial regions, and the Ross Sea, which could indicate a regional hydrogeologic system wherein solutes may be transported between surface reservoirs by ionic diffusion and subsurface flow.

The system as of 2011 had a maximum exploration depth of about 300 m. However, newer and more powerful airborne systems can explore to a depth of 500 – 600 m and new ground based instruments will get to 1000 m. This is sufficient to penetrate to the base of almost all coastal Antarctic glaciers. The MDV, where conductive brines exist beneath resistive glacial ice and frozen permafrost, are especially well suited to exploration by airborne electromagnetic, but similarly suitable systems are likely to exist elsewhere in the cryosphere.