Nearly 100 Volcanoes Discovered Beneath Antarctica’s Ice

By Nathaniel Scharping | August 14, 2017 4:37 pm
The summit of Mt. Erebus. (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

The summit of Mt. Erebus. (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

You could say Antarctica sings a song of fire and ice.

The continent’s frigid reputation is well known, but researchers from the University of Edinburgh analyzed radar scans of the West Antarctic Rift System and found 138 volcanoes hiding under the thick ice sheet. Of those, 91 were previously unidentified, they say, and the discovery could change our understanding of how the overlaying ice layer grows and shrinks.

Hidden Volcanoes

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. It’s where the seams of the Antarctic Plate are beginning to split, and the continent is pulling itself apart a bit like a piece of taffy. As the continental crust thins, magma can bubble through, causing volcanoes to sprout upward. A similar process is occurring in the East African Rift, an area that served as an important comparison for their analysis. 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. Our only glimpses come via radar data obtained from aerial surveys conducted over the years.

Using already-existing data from the British Antarctic Survey, the Edinburgh researchers hunted volcanoes by looking for cones. Based on measurements of other volcanoes worldwide, they knew that eruptions usually create cone-shaped mountains with a specific height-to-width ratio. With this knowledge in hand, all they had to do was find the rocky projections under the ice that fit the profile. They assembled a list of these rocky cones and then applied a few additional constraints, like the presence of magnetic and gravitational anomalies, to arrive at their final figure. The study was published by the Geological Society of London.

The distribution of the 91 likely volcanoes roughly aligns with the jagged continental rift, as would be expected. Along with the East African Rift, this stretch of Antarctica is now one of the most volcano-dense regions in the world, according to the researchers. However, not all of them may be active anymore, as the researchers’ data only reveals physical features, and doesn’t track geothermal activity. That region actually sees very few earthquakes, as John Cottle, a geology professor at the University of California, Santa Barbara points out, something that normally correlates with eruptions. It could be that many of the volcanoes are now extinct, he says.

Activity Deep Down

Even if most of the volcanoes no longer spew molten rock, it’s clear that volcanic activity is still occurring, according to a recent study that found a surprising amount of heat flow underneath the glacier. One of Antarctica’s most famous volcanoes, Mt. Erebus, is located in the region and has been active for some 1.3 million years, and Mt. Sidley, the highest volcano in Antarctica, is also nearby.

The presence of glacial volcanoes may sound like cause for alarm in a time when worries of melting ice sheets abound, but the reality is more complex. While thermal activity underneath glaciers can cause them to move faster as the bottom layer melts, it’s never been seen as a major factor in the past. While the discovery of dozens of volcanoes under the ice certainly indicates that Antarctica is more geologically active previously believed, it’s still not known how many are actually likely to erupt soon and what the consequences will be. In fact, the volcanoes themselves could act as a kind of brake by making the terrain more uneven and inhibiting the flow of ice.

“Models have shown that the rate of ice sheet retreat strongly depends on the shape and roughness of the surface beneath the ice. If the rock bed of the ice sheet is smooth, then retreat can proceed rapidly, but if the bed contains lots of topography, like volcanic cones, or craters, then this could slow the rate of retreat a lot,” Cottle says.

If the ice sheet continues to thin, however, the progressive unloading of weight could have a catalyzing effect on volcanic activity. Studies in Iceland indicate that as the ice fades, eruptions become more common. This is both because the rocks are more likely to melt when the pressure is removed and because gases trapped in the magma can get released, spurring eruptions. This could lead to a feedback effect where melting ice causes eruptions, which in turn melt more ice and continue the cycle.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Environment, top posts
  • Uncle Al

    Global Warming causes Antarctic volcanism. Buy Lava hand soap, destroy the world and all its little children. Who hears the leopard seals when they cry?

    • MMA-Miami Rocks

      That’s precious. Thanks miss.

      • Erik Bosma

        Guys, guys, guys… this article is about Antarctic vulcanism. Give the global warming bit a break, willya? We’ll find out if it’s true soon enough.

  • OWilson

    Yet, another factor to consider in the “settled science” of global warming!

  • JWrenn

    I had to poke my head in to see these comments. Priceless

  • LibertyLoonie

    These volcanoes are the result of climate change I tell ya!..

  • Fed Up

    Tain’t volcanos causing global warming. It’s all the useless hot air from lying politicians and our liberal iditots! Both groups emit more greenhouse gases collectively than all the factories in all civilized countries combined.

  • Gordon Hervey

    Good to find the ‘study’ link for the research paper which is absent from other reports.

  • Erik Bosma

    Always wondered if the volcanoes near subduction points are volcanoes which explode violently because of all the sea water that is also being subducted with the plate itself. Most – to my knowledge – ‘hotspot’ volcanoes and the like just seem to bubble up some crude. Is that true? Or is it a throw of the dice whether magma anywhere can be pressurized by gases to the extent of violent explosions caused by gasses such as water vapour or not.

    • Cammy Bright

      Erik, the explosivity depends on they type of magma and the water content. Hot spots under the ocean create mafic lava, like you see in Hawai’i. However, if they are under the continent, like at Yellowstone, they can have more silisic compositions and be very explosive.The volcanoes in Antarctica are resulted from the West Antarctic Rift. [Examples: The New Madrid Fault zone in Missouri is a failed rift. The East African Rift Zone is active.] With continuous growth (given millions of years) an new ocean will open up. Due to mantle activity associated with rift zones, they typically have non explosive eruptions and ooze flood basalts.

  • Jan Lahmann

    have never commented and don’t know if this will work…my theory is that heat underlying the ice from trapped magma and hot gases will cause the creation of a layer of water (logically) to form underneath said glacier and create a slippery surface for the ice sheets and glaciers to quickly pass over the evolving landscape. It’s also possible that freshly released, and rapidly (I’m assuming) cooling and solidifying magma will be rubbed smooth more easily than already solid rocky earth and the erosional forces of the running melt water which WILL, because of said uneven topography, valleys, mountains, “volcanic cones, or craters”, form tributaries which WILL find each other only to form larger, more erosive and powerful streams and eventually rivers. In geological and climatic conditions such as those found in Wisconsin, Minnesota, etc., and up into Canada where glaciation advanced and retreated under dry, rocky, flat, non-volcanic conditions, the advance may have been fast, but the retreat slow. Under such immense ice sheets and glaciers as exist at the South Pole area, the addition of very uneven, mountainous, volcanic and volcanic crater filled geologic conditions, in addition to the already established presence of a very widespread system of lakes and rivers which can only exist (and have been proven to) because of their relation to the fault lines and obviously active world of largely invisible volcanoes and unknown earthquake activity, there would be an ever-evolving series of melt-water springs, creeks, streams, hot geothermal springs, and tributaries leading to the recently discovered under-ice world of rivers and lakes on Antarctica. My opinion, contrary to the opinion stated in the article above, is that all of the rocky debris, metal ore, minerals, and various crustal materials or dirt being picked up by the newly melting water or spring water in addition to the unfathomable weight and pressure put on top of this muddy solution would not slow down the movement of the ice shelves, ice sheets, and glacial rivers atop of this hidden activity at all; rather, the sudden springing to life of Antarctica’s hidden volcanoes and fault lines with it’s rivers and lakes that have been cut off from the outside world perhaps since the age of the dinosaurs, would create an under-ice flood and exactly as hypothesized in the articles final sentence would undeniably create a feed-back loop of melting, earthquakes and fault shifts, gas expulsion, pressure release, volcanic eruptions, glacial river slippage, extraordinarily fast ice sheet collapse and breakup, and an incredible amount of continental erosion and topographical formation.


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