NASA discovers giant mantle plume that’s melting Antarctica from below

Antarctica has been in the news a lot recently, with gloomy tales of the astonishing icy continent melting and collapsing because of the effects of climate change.


However, according to scientists in one particular area of the continent something else is at work too. Researchers working for NASA have discovered that there is a massive super-volcano underneath Marie Byrd Land in West Antarctica which is generating almost as much heat as the infamous Yellowstone supervolcano and effectively melting the ice from underneath the Earth.

The research team have uncovered an enormous amount of hot rock underneath Marie Byrd Land which lies between the gigantic Ross Ice Shelf and the Ross Sea. According to the team, the heat surrounding this area is creating huge lakes and rivers underneath the ice sheet. This heat, they claim, is being generated by a mantle plume. Mantle plumes are part of the anatomy of a super volcano which bring hot material from the interior to the Earth to the surface. The region directly surrounding these mantle plumes is known as a hot spot and can cause a great deal of geographical instability. According to the team, it is likely that the mantle plume is responsible for the ever changing landscape in this particular region on Antarctica and is probably responsible for its rapid collapse towards the end of the last major Ice Age eleven thousand years ago.

The existence of a blazingly hot mantle plume existing under Marie Byrd land is something which scientists have speculated about for around thirty years because of the unique conditions in this particular area of Antarctica and the domed feature of the landscape there. However, until now there has been no solid evidence to support this idea.

This has all changed because of the work at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory who commenced the project because they were interested to know what was causing the instability in the region. According to the leader of the project Hélène Seroussi, the team were actually initially sceptical about the idea that a mantle plume could be causing the unique conditions. She said that she found the idea ‘crazy’. “I didn’t see how we could have that amount of heat and still have ice on top of it, ” she said.

However, the team created a huge number of advanced numerical models to calculate how much heat would need to be generated underneath the thick ice sheet to account for geological anomalies such as the domed appearance of the landscape and the lakes and rivers in the bedrock and eventually they came to the conclusion that there simply had to be a mantle plume in this area.

Once they had come to the conclusion that it was likely that they were dealing with a mantle plume, the team dispatched to Yellowstone to analyse the geothermal heat created by the super volcano and found that it was comparable to the amount of heat being generated in Marie Byrd Land. At Yellowstone, around 200 milliwatts is generated per square meter every hour by the heat of the volcano. In Marie Byrd land approximately 150 milliwatts is generated in the same space of time. The scientists note that if the supervolcano underneath Antarctica was any hotter then it would certainly melt the ice in the surrounding area.

The team believes that the mantle plume is coming from a rift in the Earth’s crust and that it is likely that this particular rift and mantle plume formed between fifty and a hundred and ten million years ago, prior to the region being covered with ice.

According to the research team, these investigations could prove to be acutely important in the future. As scientists endeavour to understand the nature of the landscape of Antarctica and attempt to make predictions about how it will evolve and change in the future this kind of information is absolutely essential.


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