Largest Volcanic Region on Earth Found Hidden Underneath Antarctic Ice

Mt. Erebus, Antarctica's second largest volcano. Wiki Commons

Nearly 100 new volcanoes have been discovered lurking beneath Antarctica's thick ice sheet in a tightly-packed region of the West Antarctic Rift System, making it the largest volcanic region on Earth. The find nearly triples the number of known subglacial volcanic peaks on the continent, and researchers now suspect there could be many more, reports The Guardian.

The fact that such a large volcanic system could remain hidden underneath the ice until now is alarming, but it's a testament to just how vast and remote the Southern continent is. It obviously doesn't help that some of Antarctica's ice sheets are miles deep.

“We were amazed,” said glacier expert Robert Bingham, one of the paper’s authors. “We had not expected to find anything like that number. We have almost tripled 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, greater even than east Africa, where mounts Nyiragongo, Kilimanjaro, Longonot and all the other active volcanoes are concentrated.”

Researchers are now racing to determine what the threat level of these volcanoes is, and to determine what effect an eruption or series of eruptions might have on the ice sheet.

“If one of these volcanoes were to erupt it could further destabilize west Antarctica’s ice sheets,” said Bingham. “Anything that causes the melting of ice – which an eruption certainly would – is likely to speed up the flow of ice into the sea."

All of that melting 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 entirely, it would raise sea levels worldwide by over 200 feet. That's not something a volcano could cause alone, but the activity of these volcanoes needs to be factored in when modeling glacier integrity.

The volcanoes were discovered with the help of ice-penetrating radar signals that looked for basalt rock forms characteristic of volcanic peaks. In total, 91 new volcanoes were discovered, bringing the number in this region to 138.

Interestingly, volcanoes packed underneath ice are believed to be less active. As ice sheets melt, however, it can release a lot of pressure. In fact, while ice-covered volcanoes might be less active, the regions on Earth with the most active volcanoes tend to be those that have recently lost their ice cover.

"Theory suggests that this is occurring because, without ice sheets on top of them, there is a release of pressure on the regions' volcanoes and they become more active," explained Bingham.

Since the Arctic and the Antarctic are the regions most vulnerable to global warming, ice melt could increase the odds of future eruptions. It's something that researchers will be monitoring very closely.

The findings were published in the Geological Society's Special Publications.