Antarctica’s big secret: Active volcanic heat found under the Pine Island Glacier

View from the bow of the icebreaker, the RRS James Clark Ross 2014 on a scientific expedition, during which University of Rhode Island researcher and five other scientists discovered an active volcanic source of heat underneath the Pine Island Glacier in Antarctica.

(Brice Loose)

Researchers have made a shocking discovery under the Pine Island Glacier in Antarctica — an active volcanic heat source, that they say played a “crucial role” in the movement and the melting of the glacier.

The scientists were looking for the role that the ocean plays in causing glaciers to weaken when the discovery was made.

“We were looking to better understand the role of the ocean in the melting of the ice sheet,” Assistant Professor Brice Loose of Newport, R. I., a chemical oceanographer and lead author of the paper, said in a statement.


Los added that the group “sampling of the water for five different noble gases, such as helium and xenon,” as the discovery was made.

“We were not looking to volcanism, we were using these gases to trace other actions,” Loose said. “When we first started seeing high concentrations of helium-3, we thought that we had a cluster of bad or suspect data.”

Loose said that the presence of helium-3 is a “fingerprint for volcanic activity,” noting that it is relatively abundant in the seawater at the Pine Island shelf.

University of East Anglia Professor Karen Heywood, who also worked on the study, said the presence of volcanoes means just that there is an additional source of heat to melt the ice.

“It is important to have this in our efforts to assess whether the Antarctic ice sheet may be unstable, and further sea level rise,” Heywood said.

Last year, large parts of the Pine Island Glacier separated from the main shelf. In February 2017, a piece of the glacier is approximately 1 km wide separated. And in September 2017, a chunk of ice is almost four times the size of Manhattan separated from the Pine Island Glacier, according to LiveScience.


The amount of ice on the ocean is staggering, measured in gigatons, Loose said. A gigatonnes is equal to 1 billion tonnes.

It is generally known that the West Antarctic ice sheet, is located on the top of a large or very large volcanic rift system, but there is no current magmatic activity, Loose noted. The last recorded activity was 2200 years ago, but the volcanic heat discovered is new. Loose said: it is not possible to measure the normal indicators of volcanism, including heat and smoke, because the gap is so far under the ice.

Despite the discovery of the volcanic heat, the researchers noted that the climate change is still the driving force for the melting of the ice, something other studies have repeatedly backed-up, Loose said.

“Climate change is caused by the largest part of the glacier melts that we observe, and discovered source of heat is the have of a an indefinite effect, because we do not know how this heat is distributed under the antarctic ice sheet,” Loose said.

Follow Chris Ciaccia on Twitter @Chris_Ciaccia

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