Study Bolsters Theory of Heat Source Under West Antarctica
A new NASA study adds evidence that a geothermal heat source called a mantle plume lies deep below Antarctica's Marie Byrd Land, explaining some of the melting that creates lakes and rivers under the ice sheet.
Although the heat source isn't a new or increasing threat to the West Antarctic ice sheet, it may help explain why the ice sheet collapsed rapidly in an earlier era of rapid climate change, and why it is so unstable today.
The stability of an ice sheet is closely related to how much water lubricates it from below, allowing glaciers to slide more easily. Understanding the sources and future of the meltwater under West Antarctica is important for estimating the rate at which ice may be lost to the ocean in the future.
Antarctica's bedrock is laced with rivers and lakes, the largest of which is the size of Lake Erie. Many lakes fill and drain rapidly, forcing the ice surface thousands of feet above them to rise and fall by as much as 20 feet (6 meters). The motion allows scientists to estimate where and how much water must exist at the base.
Some 30 years ago, a scientist at the University of Colorado Denver suggested that heat from a mantle plume under Marie Byrd Land might explain regional volcanic activity and a topographic dome feature. Very recent seismic imaging has supported this concept. When Hélène Seroussi of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, first heard the idea, however, "I thought it was crazy," she said. "I didn't see how we could have that amount of heat and still have ice on top of it."
Continue reading at NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory
Image via Zina Deretsky, NSF