Undergraduate Discovers 91 Volcanoes Hiding Under Antarctica’s Ice Sheet

Sometimes, a simple question changes everything.

That’s what University of Edinburgh undergrad Max Van Wyk de Vries discovered when he asked how many volcanic peaks might lie under the Antarctic ice sheet.

So Van Wyk de Vries’s proposed a study. That turned into what the paper’s authors call the first inventory of Antarctica’s subglacial volcanoes. Analyzing data on the ice sheets and the land below them as well as satellite imagery and databases of known volcanoes, his team identified 91 volcanic peaks hiding under the ice. That adds to the 47 volcanoes already known, bringing the continental total to 138.

Mt. Erebus, the second tallest volcano in Antarctica at 12,448 ft (3,794 m).

Van Wyk de Vries’s study does not determine whether the volcanoes are active, but it does show a high concentration of the peaks along the more than 1,800 mile long central axis of the West Antarctic Rift System. The authors compare it to the East African Rift System, which is recognized as the densest concentration of volcanoes in the world.

Robin McKie, reporting for The Guardian:

The discovery is particularly important because the activity of these volcanoes could have crucial implications for the rest of the planet. If one erupts, it could further destabilize 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. “We just don’t know about how active these volcanoes have been in the past,” said Robert Bingham, an author on the paper.

However, he pointed to one alarming trend: “The most volcanism that is going in the world at present is in regions that have only recently lost their glacier covering – after the end of the last ice age. These places include Iceland and Alaska.

“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.”

The newly discovered peaks range from 325–12,600 feet high and will no doubt lead scientists to take a closer look at Antarctica’s geology.

“Antarctica remains among the least studied areas of the globe,” Van Wyk de Vries said in a statement, “and as a young scientist I was excited to learn about something new and not well understood.”