World's largest volcanic range hides beneath Antarctic ice

17 August 2017
Posted by Stevie Bain.

The largest volcanic range on Earth lurks below an ice sheet in Antarctica, according to researchers at The University of Edinburgh.

Using ice-penetrating radar along with satellite and database records, scientists peered beneath the surface of a previously unexplored area known as the West Antarctic Ice Sheet. This region of the polar continent is known to harbour a number of volcanoes, as their rocky peaks are seen protruding through the surface of the ice; however, what lurks beneath this sheet of ice is relatively unknown. 

The idea to explore this volcanic region in more detail came from Max Van Wyk de Vries, an undergraduate student at the University, explaining, ‘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.’

Van Wyk de Vries and the team, led by Dr Robert Bingham, analysed the shape of rocks beneath the surface of the ice sheet, searching for the basalt rock peaks that are characteristic of volcanoes.

The group were startled to discover 91 previously unknown volcanoes ranging in height from 100m to a towering 3850m, meaning some were taller than Mount Etna. These were detected in a region known as the West Antarctic Rift System, which spans 3500m and harbours 138 volcanoes in total, the largest of which is as tall as the Eiger in Switzerland. Based on these findings, this region is now likened to East Africa’s volcanic ridge, which was previously thought to have the densest concentration of volcanoes in the world.

These extraordinary results, published in Geological Society Special Publications, will help scientists to understand how volcanoes have influenced ice sheets in the past and also anticipate what effects they may have in the future.

Importantly, whilst this data does not tell us if the volcanoes below the surface are active, past studies suggest that volcanic activity did occur in this region during previously warmer periods.

This ignites further concern about the effects of global warming in polar regions as numerous studies have shown that volcanic activity is most frequent in areas where ice is melting. This is due to the fact that pressure on the rock is relieved as the ice sheet gets thinner. Furthermore, it has also been demonstrated that thawing ice increases magma production of submerged volcanoes.

Therefore, researchers warn that the effects of global warming may have potentially eruptive consequences for the Antarctic, increasing volcanic activity as ice sheets begin to melt. 

Add a comment