New research shows that volcanic heat could blast away a significant portion of Antarctica’s ice sheet. A group of seismologists from Washington University in St. Louis have discovered an active volcano rumbling under the ice sheet in the Marie Byrd Land area of West Antarctica. If the volcano were to blow, it would melt a catastrophic amount of Antarctic ice, creating a chain reaction that would cause more glaciers to melt faster and release even more prehistoric methane gas into the air.


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The scientists happened across the underground activity thanks to a set of seismometers that detected two bands of seismic activity in January and February 2010, and another in March 2011. The instruments recorded tremors deep underground – about 25 to 40 kilometers (12 to 24 miles) down. They believe it could be shifting magma as the seismic activity they recorded stayed at a low frequency between two and four Hertz. To further back up their claims, they note that the area is already a volcanic hot zone.

The Washington University seismologists are certain there will be another eruption, and they also worry it will be enormous. By their calculations, a volcanic eruption in this area it will need 1,000 times more energy to punch through a kilometer of ice. Even if the magma isn’t able to make it to the surface, the intense heat will melt a large portion of ice, producing millions of gallons of water.

This will in turn create an ice-melting chain reaction. Doug Wiens, a professor of earth and planetary sciences in Arts & Sciences at Washington University, says all the water will rush beneath the ice toward the sea and feed into the hydrological catchment of the MacAyeal Ice Stream. The resulting wet bedrock will increase the flow of the overlying ice, and perhaps increase the rate of mass ice loss in West Antarctica.

+ Washington University in St. Louis

Via New Scientist

Images © Doug Wiens/Washington University in St. Louis