Climate-change : 91 new volcanoes beneath Antarctica's ice

August 16 2017
Climate-change : 91 new volcanoes beneath Antarctica's ice

University of Edinburgh researchers on Monday announced the discoveryof 91 previously unknown volcanoes under west Antarctica. They do not sound nearly as alarmed as, say, Quartz, which called the possibilities terrifying.“By themselves the volcanoes wouldn't be likely to cause the entire ice sheet to melt,” said lead researcher Max Van Wyk de Vries, whose team published the study in the Geological Society in late May. But if the glacier is already melting because of global warming, he said, “if we start reducing significant quantities of ice … you can more or less say that it triggers an eruption.”In a worst-case scenario, the researchers say, we could see a feedback loop of melting ice that destabilizes volcanoes, which erupt and melt more ice, and so on until Antarctica's troubles to date seem halcyon in comparison.That we know at all is thanks in part to a chance discovery by an undergraduate student: de Vries, who at age 20 is still a year away fromattaining his geology degree from the Scottish university.“Student's idea leads to Antarctic volcano discovery,” as the University of Edinburgh put it in Monday's announcement.“We were amazed,” Bingham told the Guardian. “We had not expected to find anything like that number. … I think it is very likely this region will turn out to be the densest region of volcanoes in the world.”A few dozen Antarctic volcanoes had already been discovered by explorers, such as Mount Erebus, which holds a lake of glowing lava on an island off the coast. But looking through decades' worth of data fromice-penetrating radar, seismic studies and other modern methods of exploration, the Edinburgh team gleaned the shapes of nearly 200 cones.Some of these they ruled out from their study, because satellite photos showed no corresponding deformation on the ice above the cones. Another 50 or so cones poked above the surface of the ice and exactly matched the locations of previously discovered volcanoes. The other 91 cones, the team concluded, were true volcanoes that had never seen the light ofday.“Underneath an ice sheet is an environment you wouldn't usually expect acone to be,” de Vries said. “They tend to erode into ridges or valleys.”If the ice were to suddenly vanish, these volcanoes would poke out of the sea. Some would soar nearly four kilometers high. Volcanoes would cover Marie Byrd Land and skirt the Ross Ice Shelf, resembling dense volcanic clusters in East Africa.And “there's the potential there are more volcanoes we haven't found,” de Vries said. “That's almost certainly the case.”All the hidden volcanoes are relatively young, de Vries said — born beneath the ice no more than a few million years ago, when they first spewed lava into frigid waters. Whether they're going to do so again, co-researcher Bingham told the Guardian, “is something we will have to watch closely.”

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