February 24, 2018

Antarctic Volcanic Region: Land of Fire Under Ice?

15 August 2017, 12:52 | Ruben Fields

The World's Largest Volcanic System Is Under The Antarctic Ice

A study of ice and fire

Scientists have uncovered nearly 100 volcanoes two kilometres below the surface of the vast Antarctic ice sheet, making it the largest volcanic region on Earth.

Scientists reported in the Geological Society Special Publications that they have identified 91 new volcanoes below the surface of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet, after using topographical information from radar data to identify cone-shaped features sticking up into the ice.

The study's authors said Antarctic ice melt could have "profound impacts" for volcanic activity in the region.

The survey team's youngest member, Max Van Wyk de Vries, is a volcano fanatic who wouldn't stop wondering how many tips lie below the ice.

"The West Antarctic Ice Sheet shrouds one of the world's largest volcanic provinces, similar in scale to the East African Rift System", they write. These previously reported peaks got researchers wondering if hidden volcanoes could be waiting patiently under Antarctica's ice. One big question remaining from the discovery, which scientists detailed in their study: Are the volcanoes still active? "Anything that causes the melting of ice - which an eruption certainly would - is likely to speed up the flow of ice into the sea".

Scientists hope it will help them understand how volcanoes can influence long-term fluctuations in the ice sheet and how the continent has changed in past climates.

These newly discovered volcanoes range in height from 100 to 3,850 metres.

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The new volcanoes are on top of the 47 whose peaks are above the ice and were already known about. Their study involved analysing measurements made by previous surveys, which involved the use of ice-penetrating radar, carried either by planes or land vehicles, to survey strips of the west Antarctic ice.

With the highest over 13,000 feet, the network of volcanoes under Antarctica sits quietly about two miles below the surface.

The West Antarctic Rift is bounded by the Transantarctic Mountains, stopping just shy of the peninsula and is largely covered by the Ross Ice Shelf. Researchers found 178 cone-structures beneath the ice in West Antarctica, with 138 determined to be volcanoes and 91 that were recently identified, the study says.

Aside from that concern, the researchers speculate that the activity of volcanoes could in fact be linked to their level of ice cover - or rather, the lack of it.

The volcanoes are of relatively recent origin - meaning they could be geologically active, they write.

Volcanic activity may increase if Antarctica's ice thins, which is likely in a warming climate, scientists say. A situation that must be closely monitored, said Bingham.

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