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Scientists Discover 91 Volcanoes Hidden Under Antarctic Ice Sheet

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Andreas Kambanis / Flickr

Antarctica, the coldest place on Earth, may now be home to the densest concentration of volcanoes, according to a first-of-its-kind study.

The discovery isn't something to get too excited about. The researchers warned that if these volcanoes were to erupt, it could cause more ice sheets to melt and contribute to sea level rise.


Scientists at the University of Edinburgh uncovered 91 previously unknown volcanoes in the West Antarctic Rift System, a region that spans 3,500 kilometers from Antarctica's Ross Ice Shelf to the Antarctic Peninsula.

The volcanoes were hidden under the Antarctic ice sheet and uncovered via publicly available radar mapping data. They range from 100 to 3,850 meters in height, or about as tall as the Eiger mountain in Switzerland.

If the study is verified through further research, Antarctica's total number of identified volcanoes would be bumped up to 138, making it the biggest cluster of volcanoes in the world.

The study, published in the Geological Society Special Publications series, does not indicate whether the volcanoes are active but the team is trying to find out.

As Dr. Robert Bingham, a glacier expert and one of the paper's authors noted to the Guardian, "The big question is: how active are these volcanoes?"

"That is something we need to determine as quickly as possible," Bingham continued. "Anything that causes the melting of ice—which an eruption certainly would—is likely to speed up the flow of ice into the sea."

Ominously, other experts have warned that a reverse situation could also happen—volcanic activity can be triggered by thinning ice sheets from rising global temperatures.

"The ice over top these active volcanoes likely acts to contain pressures building up in these volcanoes. As the ice melts, this will reduce overlying pressure on the volcanoes and make it easier for them to erupt if they have an over-pressured magma chamber," geologist Trevor Nace explained. "This could lead to a positive feedback loop whereby increased melting of ice sheets increases volcanic activity, which in turn increases melting. This is a scenario where there could be a tipping point at which we see ice melt rates rapidly increase compared to previous melting rates."

Sea ice surrounding Antarctica has been at unprecedented lows in recent months, setting an all-time monthly minimum extent record each month during the five-month period of November 2016 to March 2017.

"It does not appear any of the volcanoes are to blame for the recent melting of ice sheets in Antarctica," Nace noted. "However, the likelihood of the volcanoes becoming active may increase over time."

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