An amazing discovery has been made in the Antarctic. Researchers have found that under the compressed snow and ice lies a sort of water world -- a series of fast-moving lakes and rivers.

Glacial lakes have been found before in Antarctica, but what Dr. Helen Fricker of the Scripps Institution of Oceanography at the University of California found is a system of fast-flowing rivers and reservoirs underneath the ice.

Scripps says it seems the rivers transport the majority of the water from the deep interior of the ice sheet out to the ice shelves, and ultimately to the ocean.

"It's a new process that we didn't know about before. So it just shows that there's more we need to know about Antarctica," Fricker explained to Canada AM.

Global warming didn't create the rivers and lakes; they lie more than half a kilometre under the surface -- too deep to be affected by temperature changes on the surface.

But understanding how they behave is important to understanding how climate change could affect the Antarctic, Fricker said.

"The importance of the discovery is that in a warming climate, we need to be able to predict what the ice sheets are going to do.

"The Antarctic ice sheet has 90 per cent of the world's fresh water and has potential to raise sea level by about 60 meters if it all melted. So if we can model it very accurately, we will know what's going to happen in the next 10, 100, 1,000 years time, and we can get some ideas of what the sea level rises will be."

To detect the subglacial lakes, Fricker and her colleagues used data from NASA's ICESat, which sends laser pulses from space to the Antarctic surface and back, providing images much the way sonar uses sound pulses.

Fricker's team of glaciologists detected dips in the surface of the glacier that moved as the hidden lakes drained and filled.

"We can actually see the surface going down in response to the water moving away and in other places we can see the surface going up in response to the water arriving," Scripps said.

"This is a whole process that we've identified that we didn't actually know, and it's not in any computer models of the ice sheet right now. "

Fricker is now hoping to take a team to the region to map out their findings.

"Hopefully this season we will be able to get down there and put GPS on the lakes and monitor them on a daily basis," she said.