Huge rivers of ice that flow into the sea from deep within Antarctica have been mapped for the first time.

The breakthrough could be crucial in tracking future sea levels as part of the battle against climate change, according to the scientists who undertook the study.

A team led by Professor Eric Rignot from the University of California at Irvine produced a 'jigsaw' of the glacial formations using data from European, Japanese and Canadian satellites.

When the full picture was revealed it showed a new ridge splitting the 5.4million square-mile landmass from east to west.

They also uncovered previously unidentified ice formations seen moving up to 800 feet per year across immense plains towards the Southern Ocean.

They were also moving in a way not predicted by past models of ice migration.

Professor Rignot said: 'This is like seeing a map of all the oceans' currents for the first time. It's a game changer for glaciology.

'We're seeing amazing flows from the heart of the continent that had never been described before.'

Professor Rignot and his team focused on ice movement in Antarctica between 2007 and 2009.

Most of the ice on Earth is located in the continent, and its melting ice sheets could have a big impact on sea levels.

The research highlights the strong connection between coastal areas and the interior regions of Antarctica.

Dr Thomas Wagner, from Nasa's MEaSUREs environmental data programme, which funded the study, said: 'These researchers created something deceptively simple: a map of the speed and direction of ice in Antarctica.

'But they used it to figure out something fundamentally new: that ice moves by slipping at its bed, not just at the coast but all the way to the deep interior of Antarctica.

'That's critical knowledge for predicting future sea-level rise. It means that if we lose ice at the coasts from the warming ocean, we open the tap to the ice in the interior.

The findings are published today in the online version of the journal Science.

Friday, August 19, 2011