Scientists uncover 91 volcanoes under Antarctica ice

Alan Olson
August 15, 2017

Researchers have discovered what looks to be the largest volcanic region on Earth, revealing an invisible network of nearly 100 unknown volcanoes lying hidden beneath the Antarctic ice sheet.

Geologists said the new volcanoes would be in addition to 47 above the ice and already known to scientists.

"The presence of such a volcanic belt traversing the deepest marine basins beneath the center of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet could prove to be a major influence on the past behavior and future stability of the ice sheet", researchers said in the study.

This question was originally asked by the team's youngest member, Max Van Wyk de Vries, an undergraduate at the university's school of geosciences and a self-confessed volcano fanatic.

Scientists have discovered a cluster of 91 volcanoes underneath the ice caps of West Antarctica, some of which are over 12,600ft (3,850m) tall.

University of Edinburgh researchers remotely surveyed the underside of the ice sheet for hidden peaks of basalt rock, like those of other volcanoes in the region whose tips push above the ice.

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Unfortunately, the new results don't indicate which of these volcanoes might be active, or have the potential to erupt, but this new study should inspire further research and seismic monitoring in the area. And even inactive volcanoes can increase heat flux to the subglacial interface, once again leading to increased melting and a faster rate at which the melting ice flows into the sea.

Scientists theorize the volcanoes awoke once the pressure of tons of ice on top of them was released.

The identified volcanoes range from 328 feet (100 meters) to just over 12600 feet (3850 meters) in height, with cones that ranging from about two miles to just under 40 miles in diameter.

As the true, extended scope of the West Antarctic Rift System has only recently been detected, it could be some time before we know the real impact of this discovery. Scientists looked for conical protrusions across the ice in West Antarctica. Researchers determined 138 of those to be volcanoes, with 91 undiscovered until now. In Antarctica, however, the land is covered by ice that can be more than a mile thick, leaving much of the underlying terrain shrouded in mystery. "We also suspect there are even more on the bed of the sea that lies under the Ross ice shelf, so that I think it is very likely this region will turn out to be the densest region of volcanoes in the world".

These newly discovered volcanoes range from 100 to 3,850 metres high. Meltwater outflows into the Antarctic ocean could trigger sea level rises. It is not known how many, or if any, of the new volcanoes are now active.

"It is something we will have to watch closely", Bingham said.

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