Scientists have discovered the largest volcanic region on Earth, two kilometres below the surface of the vast ice sheet that covers West Antarctica. The geologist who led the team gave a warning of destabilising consequences.
The project, carried out by the researchers from the Edinburgh University (Scotland), has revealed an astounding 91 volcanoes, adding to the 47 others that had been discovered previously, with the highest as tall as the Eiger, which stands at 3970 metres in Switzerland. Geologists say this massive region will dwarf east Africa’s volcanic ridge, which is currently rated as the densest concentration of volcanoes in the world.
All of the newly found volcanoes are covered in thick layers of ice, with heights ranging from 100 to 3,850 metres. The volcanoes are concentrated in a region known as the West Antarctic rift system, that stretches 3500 km from Antarctica's Ross ice shelf to the Antarctic peninsula.
“We were amazed,” glacier expert Robert Bingham, told The Guardian. “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,” Bingham added.
Researchers say that the discovery is particularly important because the activity of these volcanoes could have crucial implications for the rest of the planet. They have warned that the activity of this range could have worrying consequences.
“If one of these volcanoes were to erupt it could further destabilise west Antarctica’s ice sheets,” Bingham told The Guardian. “Anything that causes the melting of ice - which an eruption certainly would – is likely to speed up the flow of ice into the sea. If one erupts, it could further destabilise some of the region’s ice sheets, which have already been affected by global warming. Meltwater outflows into the Antarctic ocean could trigger sea level rises.”
The big question is: how active are these volcanoes? “We just don’t know how active these volcanoes have been in the past,” Bingham added.
He also pointed to an alarming trend that the most volcanism that is going in the world today is in regions that have only recently lost their glacier covering - after the end of last ice age. These regions include Alaska and Iceland. Researchers suggested 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.
This could happen in West Antarctica, where significant warming in the region caused by climate change has begun to affect its ice sheets. “It is something we will have to watch closely,” Bingham said.
Information source: The Guardian
Title image: nationalgeographic