Scientists find Earth's largest volcanic region two kilometres below Antarctic ice sheet


The mountains, which are thought to form the planet's largest range of peaks, were discovered under Antarctic ice caps

A team of scientists unearthed a volcanic region previously hidden under ice sheets, with the geologist who led the team warning of destabilising consequences.

Edinburgh University researchers uncovered almost 100 volcanoes - with the highest almost as tall as Switzerland's 3,970-metre Eiger.

Geologists think the region, which sits two kilometres below ice in west Antarctica, will dwarf east Africa's volcanic ridge, which is rated as the world's densest concentration of volcanoes.

Glacier expert Robert Bingham, who helped author the paper, warned The Guardian the range could have worrying consequences.

'If one of these volcanoes were to erupt it could further destabilise 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.'


Edinburgh University scientists fear their latest discoveries could have crucial consequences

The Edinburgh volcano survey, featured in the Geological Society's special publications series, examined the underside of the ice sheet for hidden peaks of basalt rock similar to those produced by the region's other volcanoes.

Over the past century, explorers have reported sightings of their tips, which reach above the ice.

The survey team's youngest member, Max Van Wyk de Vries, is a volcano fanatic who wouldn't stop wondering how many tips lie below the ice.

An undergraduate at the university's school of geosciences, he set up the project with Dr Bingham.


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

They used ice-penetrating radar carried by planes and land vehicles to analyse measurements made by previous surveys and survey strips of west Antarctic ice.

Dr Bingham explained the results were compared with satellite and database records and geological information from aerial surveys.

'Essentially, we were looking for evidence of volcanic cones sticking up into the ice.'

After collating the results, the team reported 91 previously unknown volcanoes, adding to 47 others discovered over the previous century by explorers.

These newly discovered volcanoes range from 100 to 3,850 metres high.

All are covered in ice, sometimes in layers that are more than 4km thick.

Dr Bingham was shocked to find the active peaks concentrated in the west Antarctic rift system, which stretches 3,500km from Antarctica's Ross ice shelf to the Antarctic peninsula.

'We were amazed. We had not expected to find anything like that number.

'We have almost trebled 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.'


Almost 100 volcanoes have been discovered in the region

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