NASA has discovered proof that the 91 volcanoes underneath the Antarctica ice have formed a so-called ‘mantle plume’ that is melting part of West Antarctica from beneath.
The theory was untested for 30 years, but now scientists from the Jet Propulsion Laboratory unit of NASA say their advanced numerical models leave no doubt: a huge upwelling of hot rock under Marie Byrd Land, which lies between the Ross Ice Shelf and the Ross Sea, is creating vast lakes and rivers under the ice sheet. That could also explain why the Antarctic region is so unstable today, as well as why it has collapsed as quickly as it did during the last Ice Age, some 11,000 years ago.
Imagine it like this: the ice is being heated from above by the warming cloud temperatures in the summer and from below by the warming temperatures of the water that is being formed into lakes.
The lead scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Ms. Hélène Seroussi, explains: “It’s definitely a neat idea from a scientific perspective. I was interested because my first impression was that it’s surprising. There’s this feature under the ice and we still have ice present there. It was interesting to reconcile these two things that were contradictory in the first place.”
Ms. Seroussi’s team thus began building a model of such a mantle plume’s effect on the ice sheet of the Antarctic in combination with heating underneath the ice. According to their study, this sort of phenomenon could indeed melt several centimeters of ice right above, and explain some of the heat creating Antarctica’s hidden lakes and rivers
In a supporting statement, NASA explained further: “They found that the flux of energy from the mantle plume must be no more than 150 milliwatts per square meter. For comparison, in US regions with no volcanic activity, the heat flux from Earth's mantle is 40 to 60 milliwatts.
“Under Yellowstone National Park – a well-known geothermal hot spot – the heat from below is about 200 milliwatts per square meter averaged over the entire park.”