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Earth's largest volcanic region discovered in Antartica

15 August 2017, 12:53 | Hattie Nash

A study of ice and fire

Scientists discover largest ever volcanic region on Earth lying under Antarctica ice sheet

While the area has one of the world's most extensive regions of stretched continental crust, according to project's researchers, ice coverings have made it hard to fully map the extent of volcanic activity in the area.

They say the newly discovered volcanic region is quite similar to East Africa's volcanic ridge, which now holds the title for the region with the world's densest concentration of volcanoes. Researchers remotely surveyed the underside of the ice sheet for hidden peaks of basalt rock, like those of other volcanoes in the region whose tips push above the ice.

Scientists drew on ice-penetrating radar measurements, satellite records, and geological information from aerial surveys to confirm Van Wyk de Vries' concept. Of those, 91 were previously unidentified, they say, and the discovery could change our understanding of how the overlaying ice layer grows and shrinks.

This question was originally asked by the team's youngest member, Max Van Wyk de Vries, an undergraduate at the university's school of geosciences and a self-confessed volcano fanatic. After examining existing data on west Antarctica, I began discovering traces of volcanism. If even one of these volcanoes erupt, it could further destabilize the ice sheet, causing even more meltwater to flow into the nearby ocean and triggering a rise in sea level.

Scientists would have to conduct further research to determine whether those volcanoes are active or not.

"It is fascinating to uncover an extensive range of volcanoes in this relatively unexplored continent", said study co-author Robert Bingham, in a press release.

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This story originally appeared on The Independent. Researchers determined 138 of those to be volcanoes, with 91 undiscovered until now. Back in 2013, researchers from Washington University detected at least one active, ice-covered volcano in Antarctica (also only the West Antarctic Ice Sheet), so it's reasonable to assume others may be active as well.

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

These newly discovered volcanoes range from 100 to 3,850 metres high. It is not known how many, or if any, of the new volcanoes are now active.

"Research in Iceland has shown that with thinning ice cover, magma production has increased at depth", they wrote.

If the ice sheet continues to thin, however, the progressive unloading of weight could have a catalyzing effect on volcanic activity.

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