Nearly 100 Volcanoes Discovered Under Antarctic Ice Sheet

Nearly 100 previously unknown volcanoes, some of which are more than 12,000 feet tall, have been discovered hidden more than a mile beneath the extensive ice sheets of western Antarctica, according to researchers from the University of Edinburgh’s School of Geosciences.

Using data from  a digital elevation model known as Bedmap 2 DEM and radar imaging to create a surface elevation model, the scientists located 91 undiscovered volcanoes, The Verge explained on Sunday. It is not known how many, or if any, of the new volcanoes are currently active.

If any of them are active, study author Robert Bingham cautioned, there could potentially be dire consequences. “If one of these volcanoes were to erupt,” he explained to The Guardian, “it could further destabilize west Antarctica’s ice sheets. Anything that causes the melting of ice – which an eruption certainly would – is likely to speed up the flow of ice into the sea.”

“The big question is: how active are these volcanoes? That is something we need to determine as quickly as possible,” Bingham added. He and his colleagues have published their findings as part of the Geological Society’s special publications series, the UK newspaper reported on Saturday.

Active volcanoes could further destabilize of the ice sheet

Using their surface elevation model, Bingham’s team searched for mounds that were at least 328 feet (100 meters) tall and met a specific length-to-width ratio benchmark, which they categorized as a probable volcanic core, The Verge said. Next, they further evaluated the candidates to gauge how confident they were that each structure was actually a volcano, the website added.

Ultimately, they came up with a list of 178 cone-shaped structures, 138 of which were believed to be volcanic in nature. Those volcanoes range in size from 328 feet (100 meters) to more than 12,600 feet (3,850 meters) tall, with cones ranging from two to 40 miles in diameter. Ninety-one of those cones had not been previously identified, the researchers noted, and are part of what has been dubbed the West Antarctic Rift System.

“We were amazed,” Bingham told The Guardian. “We had not expected to find anything like that number. We have almost triped the number of volcanoes known to exist in west Antarctica. We also 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.”

In fact, the authors reported that the density of the volcanoes is nearly one per 4,800 square miles of land – making it comparable to the East African Rift, which has one volcano per 4,500 square miles, according to The Verge. More to the point, the discovery could be bad news, the scientists warn. If even one of these volcanoes erupt, it could further destabilize the ice sheet, causing even more meltwater to flow into the nearby ocean and triggering a rise in sea level.

“It is something we will have to watch closely,” Bingham told The Guardian.

Image credit: NASA