A College Student Has Discovered a Huge Range of Volcanoes Under Antarctica

An undergraduate student’s curiosity led to the discovery of what could be the largest volcanic range in the world underneath Antarctica. Scientists have conflicting theories about whether those volcanoes, known as the West Antarctic Rift System, are increasing or slowing the melting of the glacier above them.

[DIGEST: Guardian, PBS, Discover, Washington Post, Mashable]

An undergraduate student obsessed with volcanoes wanted to explore beyond the tips visible through the West Antarctic’s giant ice sheet to see how many more were hidden underneath. The resulting study may have uncovered the largest area of volcanoes on the planet. Scientists are watching closely to determine what effect nearly 100 volcanoes sitting under Antarctica could have on climate change.

Discovery of Volcanoes

Max Van Wyk de Vries, a third-year student in the School of Geosciences at the University of Edinburgh, conceived the project after reviewing Antarctica’s public radar mapping data for a class during his freshman year.

“I started discovering these cones,” De Vries said. After growing up in an area of France dotted with volcanoes, he recognized the shape. “I realized that maybe there was something special going on.”

Max Van Wyk de Vries. (Credit: R.G. Bingham)

He enlisted the help of professor Robert Bingham to organize the study, in which researchers conducted remote surveys of the ice sheet’s underside seeking concealed crests of basalt rock—similar to the nearby volcanoes where the tips push through the ice. Scientists also used ice-penetrating radar, satellite and database records, and aerial surveys to compare and analyze the land’s shape underneath the ice.

“Essentially, we were looking for evidence of volcanic cones sticking up into the ice,” Bingham said.

The results shocked even the researchers, who found 91 previously undiscovered volcanoes, for a total of 138 in the region.

“We were amazed,” Bingham said. “We had not expected to find anything like that number. We have almost trebled [sic] the number of volcanoes known to exist in West Antarctica.”

They range in height from 100 to 3,850 meters and are located in an area known as the West Antarctic Rift System, which covers 3,500 kilometers. Experts say the newly discovered volcanic range contains many similarities to East Africa’s volcanic ridge, currently recognized as the densest concentration of volcanoes on Earth.

But Bingham speculates the West Antarctic Rift System will overtake that record. “We … suspect there are even more on the bed of the sea that lies under the Ross ice shelf, so that I think it is very likely this region will turn out to be the densest region of volcanoes in the world, greater even than east Africa, where mounts Nyiragongo, Kilimanjaro, Longonot and all the other active volcanoes are concentrated.”

While the study does not determine whether the volcanoes are active, it does address the need to learn more in this area.

The study authors write, “Improving our understanding of subglacial volcanic activity across the province is important … in light of concerns over whether enhanced geothermal heat fluxes and subglacial melting may contribute to instability of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet.”

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