Study finds massive volcano range hidden in Antarctica's ice

Dr Bingham says sea levels could rise further if the volcanoes that have been uncovered erupt

Dr Bingham says sea levels could rise further if the volcanoes that have been uncovered erupt

A survey of the region of the West Antarctic Rift System has revealed 91 new volcanoes hidden within the ice.

Geologists say this huge region is likely to dwarf that of east Africa's volcanic ridge, now rated the densest concentration of volcanoes in the world.

"If one of these volcanoes were to erupt it could further destabilize west Antarctica's ice sheets", Robert Bingham, one of the study's authors, told the British newspaper.

The results were then compared with satellite and database records and geological information from other aerial surveys. They have not determined if the volcanoes are active or not, but the awareness of their presence could help scientists researching seismic monitoring in Antarctica. This could lead to a feedback effect where melting ice causes eruptions, which in turn melt more ice and continue the cycle. The results showed peaks of basalt rock poking up through the ice to form cone-shaped structures.

The University of Edinburgh reported that the biggest of the volcanoes that the scientists have just discovered is as tall as Switzerland's Eiger, a 13,000-foot mountain in the Alps. Making up the largest volcanic region on Earth, the 91 previously unknown volcanoes stretch 2,100 miles along the western edge of the continent.

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"The largely uneroded nature of the cones suggest that many may be of Pleistocene age or younger, which supports the argument that the rift remains active today", they write, adding that the concentration of volcanoes could mean major changes to come. The researchers say it's imperative that we figure this out as quickly as possible. Their study involved analysing measurements made by previous surveys, which involved the use of ice-penetrating radar, carried either by planes or land vehicles, to survey strips of the west Antarctic ice.

Van Wyk de Vries, the undergraduate whose theory kicked off the deep look into the ice, said curiosity fueled his work. Perhaps one of these newly discovered volcanoes will blow within our lifetimes, and we'll actually get a chance to see it. It runs from the Ross Ice Shelf, the largest ice shelf on Antarctica, to the Antarctic Peninsula - the tentacle-like arm that reaches up toward the curling, southernmost tip of South America that lies about 650 miles away.

Nearly 100 volcanoes are hiding below the surface of Antarctica. Any additional subglacial heat would flow into the bottom of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet, speeding its flow into the sea, where it would hasten sea level 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".

"It is something we will have to watch closely", Bingham said.

Further study is needed to determine whether the volcanoes are active.

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