An active volcano discovered one kilometer under the ice sheet of west Antarctica might erupt, increasing the rate of ice loss, researchers found.
Over the years, scientists have discovered many volcanoes jutting out from the Antarctic ice, the most famous one being Mount Erebus. However, only few of these volcanoes were found to be active. A volcano discovered one kilometer under the ice sheet of west Antarctica is not only active, but there's every possibility of it erupting. If this happens, scientists fear that it may speed up the rate of ice loss in the already fragile Antarctic ice, reveals a press statement.
"For the first time, we're seeing evidence of activity right now," Amanda Lough of Washington University in St Louis, Missouri, said.
The detection was made possible by a network of seismometers that were installed in Marie Byrd Land in western Antarctica over the last six years. Since its installation, the seismometers have been instrumental in detecting two swarms of tremors - one in January and February 2010, and the other in March 2011.
According to Lough, these recent tremors took place under a rise in the bedrock, which protrudes about a kilometer above the surrounding rock, but isn't high enough to stick out of the ice. She speculates this could be the volcanic cone. A layer of ash was also discovered trapped in the ice, probably from an eruption. Scientists think that the ash is about 8000 years old, judging from the depth at which it was found.
The volcano was discovered close to a string of mountains called the Executive Committee Range. These mountains were once volcanoes themselves. The volcanic activity seems to be moving south by about 9.6 kilometers every million years, Lough noted.
A tectonic rift running under west Antarctica, where Earth's crust is being slowly pulled apart and molten rock is welling up from beneath, may have led to the creation of this volcano. A similar geological activity was seen in the Rift Valley in Ethiopia. The presence of the rift means the area also experiences significant earthquakes, although the largest "megaquakes" are unlikely.
"In the early studies people thought Antarctica was aseismic," said Lough. "It definitely isn't. It's a lot livelier than people assumed."
Lough also revealed that though a volcanic eruption is very much possible, she cannot put a definite date on if and when it may occur. However, if it does, the molten rock will melt the base of the ice, sending liquid water flowing under nearby ice streams. These would start moving faster as a result, dumping more ice into the sea, and causing sea levels to rise a bit faster.
"I don't think it's going to cause major ice sheet failure, but it's going to be noticeable," said Lough.
In 2009, a similar expedition led to the discovery of the alpine mountain range beneath Antarctic ice, revealed a New Scientist report.