April 22, 2018

A study of ice and fire

15 August 2017, 12:51 | Francis Delgado

A study of ice and fire

Scientists discover largest ever volcanic region on Earth lying under Antarctica ice sheet

Although the volcanoes cover a wide area, they are "especially concentrated and orientated" in a particular area central to the 2,200-mile-long West Antarctic rift system, a series of rifts in the ice where all of the continent's most recently active volcanoes are located.

If the discovery is validated by further work, the newly-found volcanoes could make the West Antarctic Ice Sheet home to one of the densest volcanic ranges in the world, similar to East Africa's volcanic ridge.

Researchers say the discovery could help them better understand how Antarctica has changed during the varying climates of history, and how volcanoes influence ice sheet fluctuations.

Max Van Wyk de Vries, a student at the University of Edinburgh's School of GeoSciences, who conceived the study, said: "Antarctica remains among the least studied areas of the globe, and as a young scientist I was excited to learn about something new and not well understood". If one erupts, it could further destabilize some of the region's ice sheets, which have already been affected by global warming.

Scientists would have to conduct further research to determine whether those volcanoes are active or not. "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 at the University of Edinburgh came to this conclusion after they found 91 volcanoes that had remained hidden from geological surveys. The volcanoes in the region range in height from 100 meters to 3,850 meters tall.

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The dozens of newly determined formations almost double the 47 volcanoes previously located in West Antarctica, with the newly identified volcanoes towering up to 2.4 miles in height.

They used ice-penetrating radar carried by planes and land vehicles to analyse measurements made by previous surveys and survey strips of west Antarctic ice.

Researchers said there is a volcano every 4,800 square miles. "Essentially, we were looking for evidence of volcanic cones sticking up into the ice", Bingham said. Earth science experts have determined that glaciers covered the most active volcano regions in the world, like Alaska and Iceland, during the last ice age.

Dr Bingham's fear is that the Antarctic ocean's meltwater outflows will cause sea levels to rise. They also believe "understanding of volcanic activity could shed light on their impact on Antarctica's ice in the past, present, and future, and on other rift systems around the world".

'We have nearly trebled the number of volcanoes known to exist in west Antarctica.

"It is something we will have to watch closely", Bingham told The Guardian.

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