About 100 new volcanoes have been discovered lurking beneath the thick ice sheet of Antarctica, in a region of the Antarctic Rift System, which makes it the largest volcanic region on Earth. The finding nearly triples the number of known subglacial volcanic peaks on the continent, and researchers now suspect that there could be many more, reports The Guardian.
The fact that such a large volcanic system could remain hidden under the ice until now is alarming, but it is a testimony of how vast and remote the southern continent is. Obviously, it does not help that some of the ice sheets in Antarctica are miles deep.
“We were surprised,” said glacier expert Robert Bingham, one of the authors of the article. “We did not expect to find anything like that number, we have almost tripled the number of volcanoes that are known to exist in western Antarctica, we also suspect that there are still more in the seabed below the ice shelf of Ross, so I think it is very likely that this region will prove to be the densest region of volcanoes in the world, even greater than East Africa, where Nyiragongo, Kilimanjaro, Longonot and all other active volcanoes are concentrated . ”
Researchers are now racing to determine the threat level of these volcanoes and to determine what effect an eruption or series of eruptions might have on the ice sheet.
“If one of these volcanoes erupted it could further destabilize the ice sheets of western Antarctica,” Bingham said. “Anything that causes ice melt – which would certainly be an eruption – is likely to accelerate the flow of ice into the sea.”
All that melted ice could mean an increase in sea level rise worldwide, which could be catastrophic when combined with the devastating consequences of global warming. The Antarctic ice sheet contains 90 percent of the ice on Earth, and if it were to melt completely, it would raise sea level around the world by more than 200 feet. That is not something a volcano could do alone, but the activity of these volcanoes must be factored in shaping the integrity of the glaciers.
Volcanoes were discovered with the help of penetrating ice radar signals that looked for basaltic rock shapes characteristic of volcanic peaks. In total, 91 new volcanoes were discovered, bringing the number in this region to 138.
Interestingly, volcanoes packaged under ice are believed to be less active. As the layers of ice melt, however, they can release a lot of pressure. In fact, while ice-covered volcanoes may be less active, regions on Earth with the most active volcanoes tend to be those that have recently lost their ice cover.
“The theory suggests that this is happening because, without ice sheets on top of them, there is a release of pressure on the volcanoes in the regions and they become more active,” Bingham explained.
Given that Arctic and Antarctica are the regions most vulnerable to global warming, melting ice could increase the likelihood of future eruptions. It is something that researchers will be closely monitoring.